Calvin Quek, head of Greenpeace East Asia’s Sustainable Finance Program, argues that Xi Jinping’s “muscular” leadership will help China tackle pollution—but tougher environmental laws and enforcement and macroeconomic reforms are key.
China needs to grow the economy at the same time as it tackles pollution. Is this possible?
The government will most likely muddle through these twin challenges over the next several years. Success or failure will be determined by whether the government can implement sorely needed reforms. These include environmental policy changes such as harsher pollution fines, greater information transparency and a stronger Ministry of Environment, as well as macro-economic policy changes such as more diverse funding for local governments, opening closed strategic industries, and a more effective property tax regime. From what I’ve seen so far, although there have been major headwinds for reforms to really take root, given the muscular tone of Xi Jinping’s leadership, I am more positive that China will be able to deal with its environmental and economic challenges.
Greenpeace has studied the impact of coal burning on PM2.5 in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei (Jing-Jin-Ji) region. Recent haze episodes have highlighted other factors like wind and even agricultural fires. How can policy makers respond effectively to such a complex issue?
I think the key thing is for policymakers to learn from observing the successes and failures of various aspects of its air pollution action plan. The plan, which is quite detailed, faces several major headwinds, including the lack of enforcement power by local environmental officials, as well as social issues such as redundancies of workers as polluting factories get shut down. Taking note of these “frictions” and adjusting policy, while continuing to strengthen the underlying legal framework for energy and environmental issues, is key.
You’ve written that China’s transition to gas derived from coal could negate gains made elsewhere on air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and water issues. Beijing Municipality now plans to phase out coal, and switch to gas sourced from coal. Is this the wrong move?
Yes, I do believe that this is the wrong move, because Beijing’s sourcing for gas derived from coal sets a potentially environmentally and economically debilitating precedent for the rest of the country. As it stands now, there are more than 50 coal to gas projects in China in various stages of development. If all of them were to come online, China would pay a huge carbon emissions and water consumption penalty, not to mention the economic costs of such a huge investment. Beijing should consider other ways to improve its energy security by sourcing from cleaner alternatives such as solar, wind, natural gas, and making large investments in energy efficiency instead.