Although China’s northern cities are no stranger to debilitating smog, recent air condition in Beijing has astonished all the citizens. On 10 Oct. 2014, thick fog and haze blanketed the city, the air quality index was reaching 400, at “seriously polluted” level, and the visibility was less than one kilometer, in some areas even two hundred meters.
After years of official rhetoric like “responded quickly and eagerly”, “noticeable improvements”, the air seems to be getting worse and bringing much more health concerns. Inspectors from China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection found that “some response plans related to people’s welfare were difficult to fully implement,” while certain protocols were even deemed to be lacking in scientific rigor and feasibility, the People’s Daily said.
How to better cope with the haze threat? The experience of two neighboring countries, Japan and South Korea, might shed some light on this issue. Both Japan and Korea used to suffer from serious air pollution problem during a similar industrial development period like what China does now, more importantly, both of them adopted effective measures and have overcome it.
In about 1955, Japan implemented a national investment plan (equivalent to the construction of China’s basic industries), in order to expand exports. The large projects concentrated on heavy industry and chemical industry in coastal areas, and then more and more projects launched. When National Comprehensive Development Plan was published in 1962, even more new industrial cities were put on the agenda. Air pollution started to trouble people’s life mainly in those industrial regions.
Korea had the same track record of environmental disasters about fifteen years later. In the 1970s-80s, the Korean government’s ambitious five year economic plan led to the rapid industrialization of heavy industry and petrochemical industries, additionally air pollution as well. It was not until the 1990s that Korea began paying close attention to the environment, but the problems have arisen so quickly, that the Korean government had struggled a long time to manage them.
Japan and Korea’s experience coping with terrible pollution is instructive for China. I would like to emphasize three points.
- Ordinary citizens got involved in fighting towards pollution.
In Japan, air pollution was not first discovered and proposed prevention by local government, but local residents. From the beginning of 1950s, residents’ campaign on pollution took place in various regions. They asked for government attention, strict laws, or even stopped a construction plan for petrochemical factories. Maybe wearing masks and running away from northern cities are not enough for Chinese citizens, more concerning automobile exhaust and local investment plans are also needed to deal with this issue and to pressure the government.
- Government adopted detailed regulation on fuel use.
Until the opposition movement of Yokkaichi turned into a mass national movement, the Japanese government began to address the seriousness of this problem and developed a sulfur acidification environmental standard, which is below 0.04 ppm per hour for daily average. South Korean government adopted a strong fuel conversion policy, such as convert use of high-sulfur oil into low-sulfur oil, prohibit solid fuels use in metropolitan areas and replace them with natural gas and other clean fuels. Such a strict energy policy also encouraged firms to develop environmental friendly technology and helped with Korea’s industrial upgrading.
- Enhance to establish environmental laws.
Legislation should be a direct and effective way to control air pollution, so that strict standards and punishment can form binding rules to follow. Japan re-enacted “Atmospheric Pollution Prevention Act” in 1968 and largely modified it in 1970s to increase the penalties at all levels of violators. Korea created a new law in 2003 which set total emissions permit quotas for companies and also provided strict punishment standards.
As for China, it seems that government and industry responses are still quite slow, residents worry a lot but no actions taken except for largely keep themselves away from toxic air. Comparing with Japan and Korea’s cases, I think in China, all must strive harder to combat haze threat, and try to turn this bad thing into a turning point of industrial upgrading and development.