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Even Pollution-Fighting Drones Won't Save China's Cities

The environmental news from China doesn't get any better, with the official revelation that only three of the 74 major Chinese cities that are monitored for air quality have met national standards this year. They are: Hainan's capital Haikou, Zhoushan, an island city off Zhejiang's coast, and Tibet's capital Lhasa.

China's legislators said last week that they would strengthen environmental law enforcement this year, following Premier Li Keqiang's declaration of a "war on pollution" last Wednesday, but it won't be easy. Corruption is endemic throughout Chinese society.

According to Environment Minister Zhou Shengxian: "Companies illegally and stealthily emit pollutants. They fail to fulfill their social responsibilities. Secondly, some local governments protect those companies. They are still deeply influenced by the mindset of GDP growth-worship. Thirdly, the environmental authorities' supervision is not sufficient and in some cases nonexistent."

Sometimes, pollution is so bad that even bus drivers lose their way in the smog. Desperate officials are even considering sending drones out to spray chemicals into the smog that cause the particles to coagulate and fall to the ground. But the problem won't go away until the pollution is checked at source.

A parafoil drone designed by the state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China conducts 'fog-clearing' operations in NingboA parafoil drone designed by the state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China conducts 'fog-clearing' operations in Ningbo. The firm says testing for a type of smog-fighting drone will begin soon. Photo:

Local environmental enforcers in Beijing recently conducted spot checks and investigations of enterprises, including midnight raids. In North Beijing fines were issued to a central heating company for emitting six times the permitted amount of sulphur dioxide. "According to the new Air Pollution Control Regulations, the company will be fined 80 thousand yuan, and ordered to rectify the problem," said Zhong Chonglei, the inspection team's chief. "We will keep on tracking the company's progress. If it is found to be over-emitting after a second check, the fine will double."

Wu Xiaoqing, China's Deputy Minister for Environmental Protection, said at the weekend: "When we were chasing GDP growth, we were also paying the price of pollution, and this price is heavy, is massive".

The Ministry's anti-pollution drive is mainly focused on the heavy industrial areas around Beijing, Hebei and Tianjin, Shanghai and Guangdong. In these areas just 8% of China's land surface, 55% of national steel production, 40% of cement output and 52% of liquid fossil fuels are produced. Together they cause 30% of China's pollution with emissions at least five times higher than other regions. The most polluting plants and coal-burning power stations will be closed down.

But campaigners worry that this will only shift production to elsewhere in the country. For example in coal-rich regions like Inner Mongolia, Ningxia or Xinjiang, new coal-burning power stations are still planned.

Airpocalpse soon?

They say that central government doesn't have the will-power to really get to grips with the pollution problem, which they dub "airpocalpse".

China has a policy of buying the world's cheapest, and so most polluting, fuels. It is the world's largest buyer of the lowest grade of petroleum, which can have a sulphur content up to 15 times higher than that in the West.

Refining it to a higher standard would increase the price to consumers, which would cause inflation and social unrest, two other spectres which, up till now, the government has viewed with greater alarm than a pollution.

Corruption also means that fuel is often adulterated with even lower quality fuel, and a thriving black (sic) market means that the dirty fuels would still find their way into engines.

The problem is enforcement. Zhou Shengxian's Department is essentially toothless. Fines are not sufficient to act as a deterrent, and he would need an army of enforcers to do his job properly. And, of course, if too many polluting plants are closed down, the economy would grind to a halt.

Chairman Zhang Dejiang, the third most powerful person in the Politburo Standing Committee,But the cost to the environment is now threatening the Communist Party itself. At the People's Congress held last week, Chairman Zhang Dejiang (right), the third most powerful person in the Politburo Standing Committee, promised that combating pollution would be a top priority this year.

"We will revise the Environmental Protection Law and the Air Pollution Prevention and Control Law to improve environmental protection and management so that emissions of all pollutants are strictly supervised," Zhang said.

"[We will] enforce the strictest systems for protecting the environment by controlling pollution at the source, holding polluters accountable and ensuring that they compensate for the damage they cause," he added.

But few people believe this will happen. The NPC is seen as a "rubber stamp" body to the Communist Party. It has limited powers over central and provincial governments. And it was recently rocked by a corruption scandal in Hengyang, Hunan province, where 518 of the 527 members of the city's people's congress were accused of accepting bribes totalling more 110 million yuan in a cash-for-votes scandal.

One idea does raise hope amidst the gloom: to construct a high voltage power line to conduct pollution-free electricity from the solar and wind resource-which western regions to the central and coastal areas. This has been suggested by power distribution company State Grid Corporation's chairman Liu Zhenya at the People's Congress last week. He claimed that it would also result in cheaper power in Shanghai.

He said that if the ultrahigh voltage (UHV) grid connection plan were to be fully implemented, central and eastern regions' PM2.5 readings, the small particles of pollution thought to be most harmful to health, would fall by 28 per cent by 2020 compared to 2010.

But even this idea has its critics, who point out that it would make the recipient areas extremely vulnerable to power cuts were the line to develop a fault.

China has rushed so fast to pursue its growth agenda at any cost that stopping this runaway juggernaut is far from easy. And we all know what happens to runaway vehicles that can't stop.