China Green Awakening

Over the past four years, China has overtaken the United States to become the world’s largest producer. He also surpassed Japan in terms of the size of the economy. But there is a price to pay for these economic successes. On some days, air pollution in major Chinese cities is quite serious. In the first half of 2013, 38 percent of Chinese cities experienced acid rain. Nearly 30 percent of the country’s groundwater and 60 percent of the country’s surface water were rated “poor” or “very poor” in a government report in 2012.

Such pollution has serious implications for China’s public health, with one recent study showing that smog has caused 1 premature deaths. The more advanced economies of the world may look down on China, but that would be hypocritical, especially since the United States, for example, was in a very similar position just four decades ago.

As recently as the 1970s, air pollutants such as sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, in the form of tiny particles, were present in the air of the United States and Japan at the same level as in China now. The first attempts to control air pollution in Japan were made in 1968, and in 1970 the Clean Air Act was passed, ushering in a multi-decade of tightening air pollution regulations in the US—and the policy has been effective, to a degree. Emissions of sulfur and nitrogen oxides decreased by 15 percent and 50 percent, respectively, in the US between 1970 and 2000, and air concentrations of these substances fell by 40 percent over the same time period. In Japan, between 1971 and 1979, the concentrations of sulfur and nitrogen oxides decreased by 35 percent and 50 percent, respectively, and have continued to fall since then. Now it’s China’s turn to be tough on pollution, and analysts said in a report last month that the country is on the cusp of a decade-long “green cycle” of tightening regulation and investment in clean technology and infrastructure. Drawing on Japan’s experience in the 1970s, analysts estimate that China’s environmental spending during the government’s current five-year plan (2011-2015) could reach 3400 billion yuan ($561 billion). Companies operating in industries that account for the bulk of polluting emissions – currently power plants, cement and steel producers – will have to shell out a lot of money to upgrade their facilities and production processes to comply with new air pollution rules.

But China’s green vector will be a boon to many others. Officials plan to spend 244 billion yuan ($40 billion) to add 159 kilometers of sewer pipes by 2015. The country also needs new incinerators to handle the growing volumes of waste produced by a growing middle class.

With the level of smog shrouding China’s major cities, improving air quality is one of the country’s most pressing environmental concerns. The Chinese government has adopted some of the toughest emission standards on the planet.

Companies over the next two years will be severely restricted. Yes, you are not mistaken. Sulfur oxide emissions for metallurgists will be one-third to one-half of the allowable level in environmentally conscious Europe, and coal-fired power plants will be allowed to emit only half of the air pollutants allowed for Japanese and European plants. Of course, enforcing these strict new laws is another story. China’s enforcement monitoring systems are inadequate, with analysts saying fines for rule violations are often too low to be a convincing deterrent. The Chinese have set themselves ambitious goals. By implementing tougher emissions standards, Chinese officials hope old vehicles will be off the road by 2015 in cities like Beijing and Tianjin, and by 2017 in the rest of the country. Officials also plan to replace small industrial steam boilers with models large enough to accommodate technology that reduces emissions.

Finally, the government intends to gradually replace coal used in power plants with natural gas and has set up a special fund to subsidize renewable energy projects. If the program goes ahead as planned, the new rules could reduce annual emissions of major pollutants by 40-55 percent from 2011 by the end of 2015. It’s a big “if”, but it’s at least something.  

China’s water and soil are almost as heavily polluted as the air. The culprits are factories that dispose of industrial waste incorrectly, farms that rely heavily on fertilizers, and a lack of systems to collect, treat and dispose of garbage and wastewater. And when water and soil become polluted, the nation is at risk: high levels of heavy metals such as cadmium have been found in Chinese rice several times in recent years. Analysts expect investment in waste incineration, hazardous industrial waste and wastewater treatment to grow by more than 30 percent from 2011 by the end of 2015, with a total additional investment of 264 billion yuan ($44 billion) during this period. time. China has gone on a large-scale construction of wastewater treatment plants, and between 2006 and 2012, the number of these facilities has more than tripled to 3340. But more are needed, as demand for wastewater treatment will increase by 10 percent per year from 2012 to 2015.

Generating heat or electricity from incineration is not the most glamorous business, but the demand for this service will grow by 53 percent annually in the next few years, and thanks to government subsidies, the payback period for new facilities will be reduced to seven years.

Cement companies are using huge kilns to heat limestone and other materials from which the ubiquitous building material is made – so they could also use garbage as an alternative fuel source.

The process of incinerating household waste, industrial waste and sewage sludge in cement production is a new business in China, analysts say. Since it is a relatively cheap fuel, it could be promising in the future – especially because it produces less cancer-causing dioxin than other fuels. China continues to struggle to provide enough water for its residents, farmers and industries. Wastewater treatment and reuse is becoming an increasingly important task.  


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