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Fight against air pollution

As the debate rages on over the Delhi government’s decision to implement odd/even number traffic curbs in the national capital, Beijing on Monday issued its first “red alert” on air pollution since 2103. In response to haze-filled Beijing sky, Chinese authorities ordered the odd-even number traffic curbs for three days, starting Tuesday. Moreover, 30 percent of government cars in Beijing will be banned from the streets. State television CCTV reported that Beijing authorities for the first time are considering the imposition of a congestion tax to ease traffic. At present over 30 percent of the air pollution comes out of automobile emission. According to the Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Centre, heavy air pollution will linger until Thursday. The air quality alert of the US Embassy in Beijing showed “very unhealthy” reading of PMI 2.5 (the tiny particles in the air that reduce visibility and cause the air to appear hazy when levels are high) at above 256 which could cause significant health problems for patients with heart and lung diseases and increase in respiratory effects among general population. On Sunday China’s weather observatory issued a yellow alert for smog that will cover the country’s northern regions and asked schools to keep the children not let them outdoors to avoid exposure to heavy smog. After decades of rapid industrial growth fueled by coal, China has begun investing heavily in clean energy and moving to curtail air pollution. Last November, as part of a joint climate agreement with the United States, the Chinese government pledged that the nation’s CO2 emissions would slow their relentless growth and peak sometime around 2030. Unlike Delhi, the Chinese capital had constructed an extensive subway and public bus network and installed sophisticated automatic surveillance, using cameras instead of traffic police to implement the rules, before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Moreover, car-pool lanes were put in place to establish last-mile connectivity. Despite certain failings, the Beijing example is pertinent. What the Chinese authorities did was to establish a sophisticated public transport infrastructure before ordering their citizens to forego their cars on particular days. It had given the consumer an alternative to using their cars. 

China’s ruling Communist Party has built its legitimacy on a bargain with the people. The ruling party promises prosperity and citizens do not raise a hue and cry about the absence of democracy and the respective freedoms associated with it. However, the air pollution dynamic in China and the internet have changed everything. Earlier this year, a Chinese documentary about the country’s poor environmental record, “Under the Dome,” hit the internet. Some in government had initially lent their support with an understanding that it was good for citizens to care about their environment. “I think this work has an important role in promoting public awareness of environmental health issues, so I’m particularly pleased about this event,” said China’s Environmental Minister Chen Jining, a few days after the film was released. However, when the film went viral on the internet, attracting at least 200 million views, the government panicked and blocked it. Although senior party leaders had strongly criticized the video, the conversations around it had just become too sensitive. Suffice to say, the film captured the imagination of many. The basic demands of the people are stretching beyond “make us richer”; these days, it’s “give us a decent quality of life; let our children breathe clean air and eat safe food.”  In response to the changing political climate, Chinese President Xi Jinping had earlier this year announced that Beijing would enact a national cap-and-trade system to limit carbon emissions, starting in 2017. The program will eventually cover a number of key industries, including electricity, iron and steel, chemicals, building materials, and paper-making. Green activists have hailed this move as a major step toward addressing climate change. Suffice to say, China has ambitious climate plans. Whether those plans will actually work as intended remains to be seen. It’s not so easy to curtail emissions in a country as sprawling and as coal-dependent as China. As always, we’ll have to read the fine print carefully.
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