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The Giant Wakes Up

By Antonio Galvao, CSCP | September/October 2013 | 23 | 5

China, the biggest polluter on the planet, has decided it wants to breathe a little easier. The Chinese government thus has announced strict measures to slash industrial air pollution more than 30 percent by the end of 2017.China acts to reduce pollution by 2017 and prevent “airpocalypse”

China, the biggest polluter on the planet, has decided it wants to breathe a little easier. The Chinese government thus has announced strict measures to slash industrial air pollution more than 30 percent by the end of 2017.

The situation in China is critical. Only 1 percent of the nation’s urban population breathes air considered safe by European Union standards, according to a World Bank study. It is even worse in the northeastern rust belt, where industrial cities have levels of airborne suspended particulates 20 times what the World Health Organization considers safe. In January and February of this year, air pollution reached record levels, and observers dubbed the situation the “airpocalypse.”

The greatest source of Chinese air pollution by far is coal, the burning of which accounts for 80 percent of the country’s electricity and 70 percent of its total energy. Furthermore, the sulfur content of much of that coal is high. Jay Apt, a space shuttle astronaut, wrote in National Geographic, “Many of the great coastal cities of China hide from our cameras under a blanket of smoke from soft-coal fires.” Indeed, Benxi, a northeast industrial town, is so polluted that it once disappeared entirely from satellite photos.

China’s economy continues to grow, as do polluting industries such as mining. At the same time, demand for food and fresh water continues to climb. Regrettably, 90 percent of groundwater in Chinese cities is polluted, with two-thirds of those cities having severely polluted water.

China’s government acknowledges that the problems of air and water pollution have the potential to trigger a domestic upheaval similar to those the world witnessed in the Middle East and Brazil. As a result, the Chinese government has decided to adopt 10 nationwide measures to improve air quality in a relatively short time. They include some actions that are already in place in large cities including Beijing and Shanghai, where cleaner gasoline and diesel fuel are helping curb air pollution. The government also expects greater cooperation from cities and provinces with regards to reducing coal consumption.

Development of emergency response plans for heavy pollution—including traffic restrictions and limits on local industries—are part of the plan, which also includes heavier fines for polluters and stricter requirements for environmental impact assessments. Last year, the government announced that a social risk assessment would have to be developed before any large-scale industrial project could go forward. Also generating high expectations is a government mandate that Chinese industries release detailed information on their emissions to the general public. It is unclear which industries will need to follow these guidelines, but it is likely to include steelmakers, petrochemicals firms, and cement producers.

China’s objectives are considered ambitious by specialists. Owen Cooper of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colorado, believes the challenge will be to cut pollutants fast enough to outpace China’s rapid economic growth. If this does not happen, China will not feel the impact of the government’s measures, he says.

Still, China is taking a big step toward improving its environmental profile. The potential consequences are global. If Chinese industry applies itself fully to the development of new and more efficient machinery and processes, the entire planet will profit
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Antonio Galvao, CSCP, is vice president supply chain—global I&L at Diversey, now part of Sealed Air. He may be contacted at antonio.galvao@diversey.com.

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