China's "war on pollution" needs more than words

China's "war on pollution" needs more than words

LAUNCESTON, Australia - That China needs a "war on pollution' isn't in doubt, that it will get a concerted and sustained effort to clean up its environment is still in doubt.

Premier Li Keqiang declared China's pollution as "nature's red-light warning against inefficient and blind development" in his address to the annual meeting of parliament on March 5.

But the speech, while strong on rhetoric, was short on details and it remains to be seen what practical steps China will take to tackle its unwanted status as the world's top polluter, where just three out of 74 major cities met minimum air quality standards last year.

A high-level policy report released on March 9 did outline plans to tighten environmental protection laws, allowing for significantly higher penalties and the shutdown of polluters.

Again, exact details were lacking, but stricter regulations will only work if they are enforced, something that has been a problem in the past.

The environment ministry has been viewed as one of the weaker parts of the central government, often unable to police existing rules and unable to force regional and local governments to conform to regulations.

But even if China does beef up its environmental rules, and throws the full weight of the government behind their enforcement, the key issue is likely to be the cost of lowering pollution.

The case of coal-fired power shows the extent of the problems the authorities are facing.

The major source of pollution in China is from coal-fired power plants and other users of the fuel, such as steel and cement makers.

Much of China's fleet of coal plants are modern units fitted with scrubbers, units designed to remove sulphur dioxide, one of the gases blamed for causing acid rain and respiratory illness.

More than 70 per cent of the approximately 700 gigawatts of coal-fired power in China have these units, but they cost money to use, adding around 10 per cent to operating costs for power generators.

This means that the scrubbers are often not used, and attempts by the authorities to force utilities to turn them on are ignored.

The Washington Post reported in May last year that Huadian, one of China's largest power producers, turned off scrubbers at its plants near Beijing.

Fines levied on offending coal plants are likely to be lower than the cost of operating scrubbers, meaning power companies have little incentive to follow the laws.

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