Rising air pollution: Lessons Delhi can learn from Chinese capital Beijing

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Updated: October 24, 2018 2:35 AM

Delhi faces the same challenge as Beijing did—what we lack is political willingness and public anger to force the govt to take hard action.

Delhi Pollution

Not long ago, Delhi and Beijing competed with each other for the infamous tag of being the world’s most polluted city. Beijing beat us hands down till the mid-noughties. Then things changed. While the air quality in Beijing began to improve steadily, pollution levels in Delhi kept rising. In 2017, the yearly average concentration of PM2.5 (particulate matter with a size of 2.5 microns or less) touched 58 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3) in Beijing. In comparison, the average concentration of PM2.5 in Delhi in 2017 was 130 µg/m3. In the same year, the number of “very unhealthy” days (when the pollution levels were very high) in Delhi was four times that of Beijing. Why has Beijing succeeded in reducing pollution levels while we continue to struggle?

Airpocalypse to blue sky
The term “airpocalypse” was coined during the great smog that hit the central, northern and eastern China in January 2013. For nearly a month, an extremely severe haze with record breaking PM2.5 levels engulfed an area housing around 800 million people. It was the worst episode of air pollution in China and prompted the Chinese government to evolve a comprehensive action plan to tackle the problem. Interestingly, Delhi, too, experienced one of its worst smogs in the winter of 2012, but the government of the day blamed the pollution on unusual weather conditions and events in neighbouring states and did very little to find long-term solutions to the problem.

The concerted effort to reduce air pollution in China started when China’s State Council (similar to the council of ministers or cabinet in India) passed the ‘Action Plan on Prevention and Control of Air Pollution’ on September 12, 2013. This Action Plan had clear targets and well thought-out measures to achieve them. Firstly, it adopted a regional approach to combat pollution and identified key polluted regions. The three key regions identified for priority action were the Beijing–Tianjin–Hebei, the Yangtze River Delta and the Pearl River Delta. Secondly, it set specific pollution reduction targets for these regions. For instance, the PM2.5 reduction target (by 2017) for Beijing–Tianjin–Hebei was set 25% below 2012 levels. Specifically for Beijing, the Action Plan required that annual average PM2.5 concentration be within 60 µg/m3 by 2017.

Finally, to achieve these targets, the Action Plan defined “ten measures” to guide the development of regional action plans.
The ten measures included the development of integrated control efforts for reducing multiple pollutants; establishing regional coordination mechanisms; improving environmental regulations and enforcement; establishing monitoring, warning and emergency response systems; clarifying responsibilities of different organs of the government; accelerating technological transformation; promotion of energy-saving and environment-friendly technologies; upgradation of industrial technology; and shifting of industries.

Based on the ten measures, implementation rules for the ‘Action Plan on Prevention and Control of Air Pollution in Beijing–Tianjin–Hebei region and surrounding area’ were issued by China’s ministry of environmental protection on September 17, 2013. The rules clearly spelled out the action plan to control air pollution for different municipalities and provinces in the Beijing–Tianjin–Hebei region. Accordingly, Beijing’s government formulated its ‘Clean Air Action Plan’ and ‘Air Pollution Prevention and Control Regulations’. The Clear Air Action Plan of Beijing included specific actions and targets such as:
n Motor vehicle pollution control: This included restricting the total number of vehicles in Beijing to six million by the end of 2017 (through quota-lottery system), the implementation of ‘public transportation priority’ strategy, vehicle emission standard enhancement, retirement of old vehicles, increasing the cost of driving, vehicle management from other cities, etc.

Beijing is implementing these measures quite seriously. For instance, in 2017, the quota of new vehicles was fixed at 150,000 cars, with 60,000 allotted only to fuel-efficient cars. In 2018, this quota was reduced to 100,000 annually. Similarly, in 2017, Beijing retired 300,000 high-polluting old vehicles.

– Control on pollution from coal: Beijing has set a target to reduce coal consumption from 23 million tonnes in 2013 to five million tonnes by 2020. By 2017, it had already been reduced to 11 million tonnes. To achieve this target, Beijing has closed all four of its big coal-fired power stations and replaced them with natural gas-fired power plants and renewable energy.
n Stringent regulations and enforcement: Beijing has set some of the most stringent norms for controlling industrial pollution and has strengthened regulatory authorities to enforce them. In 2016, Beijing’s environmental watchdog handled 13,127 environment-related cases and imposed fines totalling $21.8 million (`150 crore). In 2017, Beijing plans to close or upgrade 2,570 polluting factories.

– Ecological restoration: Beijing has undertaken a massive greening programme. During the past five years, a total of 4,022 hectares of urban green space have been created, including 150 urban leisure parks. In 2018, Beijing will build five urban forests, 21 small green spaces, 10 leisure parks and 100 km of healthy greenways.

To effectively reduce Beijing’s air pollution, the surrounding municipalities and provinces, such as Tianjin, Hebei, Shandong, Shanxi, and Inner Mongolia coordinated and made a joint action plan. Joint action included retirement of small coal-fired boilers, pollution control in key industries, management of urban transport, control on number of vehicles, improvement in fuel quality, retirement of old vehicles, enhancement of vehicle emission standards, relocation of industries, strict enforcement of standards, clean energy supply, ecological restoration, etc.

The combination of Beijing’s own Action Plan and those of its surrounding regions has paid off. In a short period of four years, the city’s air quality has improved significantly. In 2017, Beijing recorded 226 blue sky days (good air quality), compared to just 176 in 2013. In the Beijing–Tianjin–Hebei region, PM2.5 levels have decreased by about 30% between 2013 and 2017. Most importantly, Beijing met the air pollution target it had set for itself in 2013. So, what lessons can Delhi learn from Beijing?

Let me list five key ones. Firstly, a regional action plan and regional coordination mechanism involving Delhi and its adjoining states must be put in place for concerted action. Secondly, the region needs time-bound targets for reducing pollution levels; without targets, action plans are meaningless. Thirdly, the action plan should be an integrated one involving all pollutants and all key polluting sources. Fourthly, hard action rather than incremental change is the key to reducing pollution levels quickly. Lastly, without strict enforcement, all other measures will fail.

The bottom line is that Delhi faces the same challenge of cleaning up its air as Beijing did a few years ago. What we lack is political willingness and public anger to force the government to take hard action. We need to remind ourselves that if we could race Beijing to the bottom, we sure can race it to the top.

Chandra Bhushan (Deputy director general of Centre for Science and Environment. Twitter: Bh_Chandra)

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