In just four years, Beijing has improved its air quality by setting time-bound targets and implementing a comprehensive regional action plan
Not long ago, Delhi and Beijing competed with each other for the infamous tag of being the world’s most polluted city. Beijing beat Delhi hands down till the mid-noughties. Then things changed. While air quality in Beijing began to improve steadily, pollution levels in Delhi kept rising. In 2017, the yearly average concentration of PM 2.5 (particulate matter with a size of 2.5 microns or less) in Beijing was less than half that of Delhi. The number of “very unhealthy” days (when the pollution levels were very high) in Delhi was also four times that of Beijing. So, how has Beijing succeeded in reducing pollution while we continue to struggle?
When the great smog hit central, northern and eastern China in January 2013, it prompted the Chinese government to launch a comprehensive action plan to tackle air pollution. It was based on a regional approach and identified key polluted regions such as Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei for time-bound action. It set specific pollution reduction targets and defined “10 measures” to guide the development of regional action plans. Based on these 10 measures, China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection issued implementation rules for Beijing–Tianjin–Hebei region and surrounding area. Accordingly, Beijing’s government formulated action plans that included specific targets such as restricting the total number of vehicles in Beijing to six million by the end of 2017, reducing coal consumption by 80 per cent by 2020 and meeting annual average PM 2.5 concentration of micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3) by 2017.
Beijing is implementing these measures quite seriously. For instance, in 2017, the quota for new vehicles was fixed at 150,000 cars, with 60,000 allotted only to fuel-efficient cars. In 2018, this quota was reduced to 100,000 annually.
Similarly, in 2017, coal consumption reduced to 11 million tonnes as Beijing closed all its big coal-fired power stations. Beijing has enforced stringent norms to control industrial pollution. In 2016, Beijing’s environmental watchdog imposed fines totalling US $21.8 million (Rs 150 crore). Beijing has also undertaken a massive greening programme.
During the past five years, about 4,022 hectares of urban green space has been created.
To effectively reduce Beijing’s air pollution, the surrounding provinces such as Tianjin, Hebei, Shandong, Shanxi and Inner Mongolia coordinated and implemented a joint action plan. The combination of Beijing’s own Action Plan and those of its surrounding regions has paid off. In 2017, Beijing recorded 226 blue sky days (good air quality), compared to just 176 in 2013. In the Beijing–Tianjin–Hebei region, PM 2.5 levels decreased by about 30 per cent between 2013 and 2017. This has helped Beijing meet the PM 2.5 target it had set for itself in 2013.
So what lessons can Delhi learn from Beijing? Let me list the five key ones. First, a regional action plan and regional coordination mechanism involving Delhi and its adjoining states must be put in place. Second, the region needs time-bound targets to reduce pollution levels; without targets, action plans are meaningless. Third, the action plan should be an integrated one involving all pollutants and all key polluting sources. Fourth, concerted action rather than incremental change is the key to reduce pollution levels quickly. Lastly, without strict enforcement, all these measures will fail. The bottom line is that Delhi faces the same challenges as Beijing did a few years ago. What we lack is political willingness and public anger to force the government to take hard action.
This piece has been pubished in the 16-30 November, 2018 issue of Down To Earth under the headline "Lessons from Beijing"
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