Air Pollution Crisis Gives New Momentum to Environmental Regulation in China


The recent spate of severe air pollution in China has shone a spotlight on the need for strong environmental regulation in China and prompted the government to move forward with a number of new environmental policies and laws – some of which have been languishing in the proposal stage for years. 

Beijing, January 16, 2013

In addition to announcing tougher fuel standards, China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) has reopened the process of amending its national Air Pollution Prevention and Control Law, which has not been amended since 2000.  NRDC has been working closely with MEP to provide information and recommendations for these amendments based on international experience.

Now MEP plans to adopt the most stringent emission control limits for heavy industries to date (see here for MEP news release in Chinese). The details are still being hammered out, but here is what we know so far:

  • Six heavily-polluting industries – thermal power, iron and steel, petrochemicals, cement, non-ferrous metal, and chemicals – will comply with international pollution standards.  
  • Coal-fired industrial boilers in 47 major cities and municipalities will also meet new regulations: those in thermal plants are allowed a maximum of 50 milligrams per cubic meter of SO2 emissions (cut by half from existing standards), while dust emissions will be limited to 20 mg per cubic meter (the international standard is 30 mg per cubic meter).  
  • The 47 cities correspond to the most densely populated as well as most heavily polluted regions.
  • New projects in the thermal power and iron and steel industries will begin compliance on March 1st while existing projects will start on July 1, 2014 and January 1, 2015, respectively. 
  • Timetables for other industries are still being finalized and more details should be announced in early March.

These rules aim to use stricter emission limits to drive industries to upgrade and adopt cleaner technologies.  They illustrate MEP’s determination to curb severe air pollution, as the proposed rules cover all emission-intensive industries, apply to key regions and set clear timelines.  Enforcement, however, will be challenging, and a strong enforcement strategy and plan are needed. Even though these measures identify Special Emission Limits (SELs) for the six most polluting heavy industries, the schedule for formulating these SELs and related emission standards for some industries is still unclear. In addition, since industrial emissions will be implemented at the city level, a strategic plan and operational mechanism are needed to ensure that meeting these limits will lead to good regional air quality.  Increased transparency and strong public participation are essential to increase effective compliance and enforcement of these rules.

In addition to these national initiatives, Beijing’s Environmental Protection Bureau issued draft municipal Regulations on Air Pollution Prevention and Control just before Chinese New Year. To Beijing’s credit, the draft was open to public comments, demonstrating a growing willingness to be more transparent and accountable. NRDC has reviewed the draft and submitted recommendations for improvement, including using human health standards to formulate emission control limits and increasing penalty fees for pollution violations to strengthen enforcement and deter illegal construction projects (see here for complete comments in Chinese).

Meanwhile, according to China’s Ministry of Finance, the government is planning to introduce new taxation policies, including a carbon tax to reduce pollution levels (see here for the official announcement in Chinese). A senior official at the Ministry’s tax policy division is urging the government to push for resource tax reforms by implementing a tax on coal production as well as on other resources, such as water. The same official, Jia Chen, is also calling the government to tax energy-intensive products like batteries, although no timelines have been provided yet.  My colleagues Yang Fuqiang and Alvin Lin discuss a China carbon tax, the subject of intense debate in China for years, here.

These are all much-needed measures to preserve China’s environment and public health.  Yet although most individual coal-fired plants in China meet national emission standards, the underlying problem is that China consumes too much coal overall. In fact, China now burns half of all coal consumed worldwide. Yet there are signs of change here as well.  China’s State Council recently set a target of reducing its annual primary energy consumption to 4 billion tons of coal equivalent by 2015.  Although this target is nonbinding, it is an important first step towards addressing China’s coal addiction.  NRDC has been advocating for a strong, binding, enforceable cap on coal consumption in China, because it will enable China to wean itself off dirty energy and reform its energy structure.


We can see from these new developments that China has good intentions, but it must follow through by finalizing these strong policies and regulations, ensuring effective implementation and enforcement, and increasing transparency and public participation, in order to achieve significant and lasting impacts on its air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.  

This blog was coauthored with my colleagues Alvin Lin, Wu Qi, and Christine Xu.

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