China’s challenge in the Yangtze Delta
China’s uneven environmental gains[edit | edit source]
In 2018, China’s Year of the Dog began the way it usually does: A rapid rise in PM2.5 particulate matter registered in 338 cities because of traditional fireworks celebrations to usher in the new year. Eighty of them were heavily polluted and 17 were severely polluted, despite significant year-over-year air quality improvements that followed fireworks bans in more than 400 cities including Beijing and Shanghai.
The holiday creates a temporary problem, but there’s less to celebrate year-round when it comes to any long-term environmental gains in Shanghai and the Yangtze River Delta. There, PM2.5 counts were up 20 percent in January 2018 with readings of 72 μg/cm. That’s compared with Beijing, which benefited from strict winter environmental controls in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei (BTH) region, which saw their PM2.5 concentration down by 45.3 percent in the same year-over-year period. Even Beijing’s success has been uneven following the implementation of an ambitious BTH winter plan in October 2017; yet under less stringent regional and national plans, the heavily industrial and populous Yangtze zones are not seeing any gains. That’s despite a 20 percent reduction goal in fine PM in the Yangtze, established by a 2013 national Action Plan on Prevention and Control of Air Pollution which is now awaiting a 2018 update.
However, in order to maximize the reductions of polluting matter, Yangtze, the Pearl River Delta, Fujian and other areas alike need their own winter plan. Otherwise, China risks creating a two-speed industrial base – one with stronger emission controls where CO2 reductions are achieved, and one with weaker regulations. Over the medium term, it highly probable that instead of changing their ways, Chinese industry companies will just decide to shift their factories to regions with weaker controls.
There’s no question China is making progress on its environmental record, shifting to more renewable sources and cracking down on the manufacturing sectors that most contribute to air, water and soil pollution. The evidence so far indicates that the BTH area did indeed implement very strict air standards. The country’s overall PM2.5 level for January 2018 was 64 μg/cm, down by a fifth. Yet it remains the global leader in coal consumption and carbon emissions, with the data unclear on whether China’s use and impacts have peaked. What’s more, outside of the critical need to address the environmental crisis in Beijing, other developed regions are seeing unexplained pollution increases.
The Yangtze River Delta[edit | edit source]
The Yangtze River Delta is home to more than 115 million people and represents the largest of China’s economic zones at 99,600 square kilometers. It accounts for 40 percent of China’s economy, but with that comes the high level of pollution associated with the coal, steel, auto and cement plants of the region.
However, the region’s biggest plight is perhaps the burgeoning nickel pig iron (NPI) industry. Between them, Jiangsu Delong Nickel Industry Ltd. (德龙镍业), Lianyungang Huale Alloy Co., Ltd (连云港华乐合金), Jiangsu Baotong Nickel (江苏宝通), Suqian Xiangxiang Industry Co., Ltd. (宿迁翔翔) produced around 830,000 tons of nickel pig iron in 2017. And when it comes to respecting environmental rules, these companies are serial offenders. Jiangsu’s Yangcheng facility was shuttered in December 2016 for failing to meet environmental approvals. Lianyungang received a fine in 205 for emissions violations and failed to meet PM 2.5 standards in 2016. Jiangsu was equally fined in 2015 for failing to get the proper environmental permits. Lastly, Suqian’s PM 2.5 readings in 2016 were four times higher than the government-approved standard.
Shanghai itself is a financial and emerging tech hub, but top manufacturing priorities for the wider Yangtze River Economic Belt in 2018, including its nine provinces, are digital information, high-end equipment, automobiles, home appliances, and textiles and garments, the government said in January.
Although not included in Beijing’s winter air quality plan, it’s been lackluster in achieving goals of its own – and with the pressure to reduce pollution in the north, the Yangtze is seeing the impacts shift south, further raising the need for the so-called “2+26 cities” winter plan to expand as well.
Ambitious Action Plan falls short in Shanghai[edit | edit source]
The 2013-2018 Action Plan called for PM2.5 reductions of 25 percent in BTH and 20 percent cuts in the Yangtze Delta, but while Beijing is seeing dramatic improvement the region around Shanghai is seeing only increases. The reduction goal in coal use by 2017 was set at less than 65 percent of total energy consumption, which is one of 10 measures that were supposed to ensure achievement of PM targets.
Yet China’s overall use of electricity was up 6.6 percent in 2017, with a 5.3 percent increase in power generation from burning fossil fuels – an increase on top of its already hefty emissions from coal use. It’s not clear that Beijing’s commitment to environmental regulation is extending to the rest of the nation.
Five-year plan for the Yangtze Delta[edit | edit source]
China is approaching the midpoint of its 13th Five-Year Plan for the Protection of Ecological Environment, with specific goals for the Yangtze River Delta; at its writing, the plan noted that PM2.5 levels were down by 20.9 percent when compared with 2013, another indication that reversal is a troubling trend.
In addition to protecting air quality, the five-year-plan calls for conservation of soil and water resources, and promised an aggressive “redline” zoning to establish environmental protections. Those redlines were announced in February 2018 and include 11 regions along the Yangtze River Economic Belt where forests, wetlands and other natural resources will be placed under rigorous regulation and control. The plans for Yangtze, BTH and other regions assessed so far protect about 25 percent of total land area.
The 13th Five-Year Plan period calls for total coal consumption cuts of 5 percent in Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Anhui, and the elimination of inefficient low-capacity coal-fired boilers. Control over VOC emissions in oil refining, petrochemical, industrial coating and printing are a priority. It also calls for extensive soil remediation, improved water quality management and cleaner, healthier air, although that relies on controversial coal-to-gas technologies in the Yangtze region. “The PM2.5 concentration in the Yangtze River Delta region is expected to see sharp reduction” by 2020, the plan document said.
The five-year plan consistently articulates the same ecological priorities for the Yangtze River Delta – and for that matter the Pearl River Delta – that it does for the BTH region. The data on improvements in Beijing, though, aren’t matched in the heavily industrial Yangtze, and that’s a warning flag for China as well as an entire planet that’s counting on the world’s largest carbon emitter to achieve climate goals.