The blue skies overhanging Beijing during the 2014 APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting were but a memory on November 19, as a wave of smog once again enveloped the city. The disappearance of the "APEC blue" that had lasted two weeks means the specter of air pollution now looms large in the public consciousness. Although President Xi Jinping expressed desire at the end of the forum for the APEC blue to be maintained long term, the reemergence of haze in Beijing indicates that this is hardly feasible, at least in the near future.
Some may claim that the measures taken during the APEC meeting to curb air pollution have provided valuable experience in the country's fight against air pollution. It is arguable, however, that such expedient short-term measures are impractical and unsustainable and their continuance would therefore be ill advised.
The APEC blue was achieved by suspending work at construction sites, taking half of the city's vehicles off the road and halting production in polluting factories. In the meantime, Beijing's neighboring Hebei, Shanxi and Shandong provinces, Tianjin Municipality and Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region also took similar emission reduction measures. Owing to efforts from all sides, Beijing was able to play host to blue skies during the APEC meeting.
That said, making permanent the aforementioned measures in order to improve air quality would be folly indeed.
The APEC blue experience indicates that Beijing's air pollution originates not only from industrial production in Beijing but in areas surrounding the city. If measures to suspend or reduce industrial production were to be indefinitely extended in these areas, factories would suffer crippling losses, employees' incomes would be drastically reduced and the number of jobless would doubtless increase. The ensuing economic and social problems would make the haze seem a minor issue by comparison.
Smog is by no means unique to China. London also suffered haze following the Industrial Revolution. The British capital rid itself of smog not simply by shutting down factories but through the passing of legislation, the expansion of green spaces and the reduction of industrial emissions. After the Clean Air Act took effect in 1956, it took the city 20 years to reduce days marked by excessive smog to a rate of less than 10 per year.
London's experience in reducing air pollution may prove instructive to China. The APEC blue phenomenon has only further consolidated confidence that smog can be eliminated by reducing emissions.
There are multiple ways to reduce emissions aside from curtailing production. Greater employment of clean fuels can lessen the need for coal, and new technologies now allow us to convert waste products into fuel.
The Chinese Government introduced measures to save energy and reduce emissions some 10 years ago. One of the latest goals is to cut energy use per 10,000 yuan ($1,585) of GDP 16 percent by 2015 from the 2010 level. To this end, the government has introduced practices and technologies that reduce emissions and save energy in high consumption industries such as chemical engineering and the production of steel, nonferrous metals and construction materials.
However, these measures have yet to produce conspicuous effects. Although clean energy sources are gaining in popularity in Beijing, their use in areas located nearby remains marginal. Moreover, technological innovations in emission reduction are mostly undertaken in large state-owned companies. Small and medium-sized state-owned companies and their private counterparts have invested little in technological improvement and energy efficiency.
Part of the reason for this is that quite a few local governments have not recognized the urgency of energy conservation and emission curtailment. Driven by the pursuit of economic growth, they have not effectively implemented the measures aimed at reducing emissions. Also, economic policies designed to promote energy conservation and emission reduction have proved inadequate, and as a result, companies lack the motivation to reduce emissions.
China has to promote an industrial structure and a lifestyle that are low-consumption, low-emission and sustainable. Only then will the country be able to realize sustainable growth and keep its skies blue. For the Chinese Government, economic growth and poverty alleviation will remain top priorities for some time to come, but it will never lose sight of the fact that curbing pollution and creating a clean environment are equally important to the national welfare and people's quality of life.