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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Beijing: Cleaning Up it's Deadly Act

Air Date: Week of

It is estimated that in China, air pollution, from coal stoves, diesel and leaded gas, contributes to as many as 150,000 premature deaths each year. Reese Erlich traveled to China and reports on the issue of poor air quality and what measures the government is taking to improve conditions there.


CURWOOD: Pollution is often the hallmark of rapid development, and no place is this more obvious than Beijing, China's burgeoning capital city. On many days an ominous gray pall hangs over Beijing's skyline, and some researchers claim that as many as 150,000 deaths in China every year can be blamed on air pollution. The Chinese government recently announced ambitious plans to improve air quality, but as Reiss Ehrlich reports, so far the efforts seem to be long on rhetoric and short on action.

(Sounds of steaming)

EHRLICH: The cook tosses some vegetables into this sizzling wok, which sits firmly on a coal-burning stove. In this Beijing courtyard of 18 families, the smoke from 18 stoves forms thin columns rising into the noontime sky. These and millions of other Beijing coal stoves contribute mightily to the city's air pollution. Bai Hai Wa is a courtyard resident.

WA: [Speaks in Chinese]
TRANSLATOR: Yes, we understand that coal causes air pollution. Many of our neighbors use coal to cook. In our family we try to use natural gas as much as possible, but we don't have enough natural gas so we can both cook and keep warm. In about 3 years the government will solve the problem by building a gas pipeline to supply Beijing.

EHRLICH: That natural gas pipeline is part of a clean air plan developed by the Chinese government. In addition to burning coal, Beijing's air is awash in pollution from virtually uncontrolled growth of factories and vehicle traffic. One Washington, DC-based environmental group estimates air pollution annually causes 150,000 premature deaths throughout urban China.

(Machinery. Voice: "It's just a start...")

EHRLICH: The foundry at this Beijing auto factory used to have an ancient coal-burning furnace, but under government pressure management installed modern equipment. A factory official at this American-Chinese joint venture explains.

OFFICIAL: The old smokestack is basically coal-burning, the new, we put in a disamatic line where you do a lot of heat with electric, you get rid of all the coal-burning and sludge and that type of thing. It's just a much cleaner method.

EHRLICH: The new equipment also improves the foundry's efficiency. Government officials say most industries cooperate voluntarily because anti-pollution efforts also help their factories. Gu Jia Cheng is deputy director of the Beijing environmental bureau.

GU: [Speaks in Chinese]
TRANSLATOR: Most of the factory managers are willing to buy pollution control devices. The workers want and price, they invest some money in buying such devices. However, if the pollution standards are exceeded, then the companies will be fined.

EHRLICH: The system doesn't always work that smoothly. Factory managers in China often make the same arguments as their American counterparts, but with more success. Jonathan Sinton is a researcher with the University of California's Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.

SINTON: A lot of factories make economic arguments. They say if we, if we implement this, then we're going to be losing a lot of money. We can't afford to keep people that work and since large state-owned firms are big employers, often the local authorities will tell the local environmental protection bureau to back off.

EHRLICH: Critics say there are other institutional problems. Eighty percent of fines levied by the environmental bureau is returned to the company to pay for air clean-up. Thus, only 20% is punitive. Under this system, critics say, it's cheaper for unscrupulous factory managers to buy anti-pollution devices and never operate them, because the environmental bureau doesn't follow up once the equipment is purchased. Jonathan Sinton says even honest managers often can't afford to buy the expensive, foreign-design devices.

(Sounds of traffic)

EHRLICH: If enforcing laws against industry is tough, just take a look at Beijing's ever-mounting car and truck pollution. Ten years ago, Beijing was worried about too many bicycles clogging the streets. Today, thousands of diesel trucks and lead gasoline-spewing cars line the city's thoroughfares. Environmental bureau official Gu explains the government recently tightened its auto emissions standards.

GU: [Speaks in Chinese]
TRANSLATOR: These cars and trucks clearly pollute too much. They are required to install pollution control devices. We have an annual check on all cars to see if they pass the emission requirements. Sometimes police will randomly check them on the street.

EHRLICH: But Jonathan Sinton says the new emissions regulations are generally ignored because vehicles are so vital to the city's booming economy.

SINTON: There's generally considered a shortage of vehicles on the road. There's huge demand, and to take a vehicle out of service just because it doesn't meet emission standards would seem ridiculous to them.

EHRLICH: That tension between the push for economic development and a clean environment is being felt all over China. The country's gross national product is growing by nearly 10% per year, and environmental issues have taken a back seat. Now, the government seems serious about making the environment a greater priority, but it will take years of sustained commitment and tough enforcement for those efforts to bear fruit. For Living on Earth, I'm Reiss Ehrlich in Beijing.



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