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Friday, 17 November, 2000, 15:39 GMT
China's environmental challenge
The Beijing skyline is shrouded in smog
The world's most polluted capital: Beijing in smog
By Duncan Hewitt in Beijing

On a cold wintry morning, Li Tiejun looks out of the window of his office in a run-down building in western Beijing.

A few tower blocks can be seen emerging from a sky which hangs over the city like a dirty grey-white shroud.

Air pollution in China
Beijing, Shenyang and Xian in world's top 10 polluted cities
Air quality below WHO standards in over 500 cities
Acid rain falls on over 80% of cities
75% of Chinese energy produced from coal

Source: Professional Association of China Environment news

"The pollution's not too bad today, I'd guess," he says. "See, the visibility's pretty good - it's just a bit overcast."

For a man in Mr Li's position, optimism is a prerequisite. He is deputy head of the air pollution department in the city government.

Along with Mexico City, Beijing shares the distinction of being the world's most polluted capital.

Part of the problem for Beijing is its natural situation - in a basin surrounded by hills, over a hundred kilometres from the coast and at the mercy of dust filled winds from the Mongolian planes. Yet the city is also a microcosm of the environmental challenges facing China.

Everyday pollution

In Beijing's streets the sources of pollution are not hard to spot.

Every day, 35-year old Mr Wang pedals his cycle cart through the narrow lanes of Beijing's old residential districts. Behind him is a pitch black cargo - briquettes of coal for the area's old courtyard houses.

"It's like London in the 1950s - once you stop coal use the problem is solved."

Li Teijun
Beijing environmental official

This is the traditional fuel for heating and cooking in many Chinese cities. It is low grade and high in sulphur. When burned, it coats surrounding surfaces with a noxious grey dust.

China's national dependence on coal - still the source of some 75% of its energy - is seen as a key cause of country's environmental problems.

Taking steps

But Beijing has plans to phase out coal use, making people like Mr Wang a thing of the past. "We're changing the energy structure of the whole city", says envionment official Li Tiejun adamantly.

"First we tackled the small food stoves; now, in just two years, almost the whole catering industry has gone over to natural gas or electricity, and all small and medium size industrial boilers are using clean fuels."

Thousands of homes too are being converted to natural gas too, and the World Bank is providing assistance.

"It's like London in the 1950s," says Mr Li, "once you stop coal use the problem is solved."

New measures

One source of hope may, ironically, be the sheer scale of China's problems.

Factories contribute to Beijing's air pollution
Factories in West Beijing belch polluting smoke

After 20 years of uncontrolled economic development, officials and citizens alike are finding it hard to ignore the chronic air pollution. Respiratory diseases have become one of the country's biggest health risks. There are billions of dollars in crop losses each year.

Clean-up measures are now being announced thick and fast.

In Beijing, after years of apparent inaction, a total ban on leaded petrol for cars was implemented within the space of just six months.

The authorities are also taking action against polluting factories. Some have been closed, and others are under threat if they do not cut pollution by the end of this year.

Jobs at risk

Many environmentalists agree that China now has some of the toughest environmental laws of any country. But putting them into practice nationwide is a major challenge.

Basically they have the choice of putting all the people on the street or letting the pollution continue.

Patrik Lund
North China director for environmental consultancy ERM
Even in Beijing, officials admit it would be difficult to close down the massive Capital Iron and Steelworks which belches out smoke in the city's western suburbs.

This one-time icon of China's socialist industrialisation has been told to cut back on production. But it retains significant political backing, and - perhaps crucially - it provides employment for about 40 000 people.

"The environmental protection bureaux know what they should do - the problem for them is the social issues," says Patrik Lund, North China director for the environmental consultancy ERM. "Basically they have the choice of putting all the people on the street or letting the pollution continue."

Motor industry

There are other economic pressures on environmental policy.

Despite all the measures to tackle car pollution in cities like Beijing, the government has made it quite clear that it sees the development of the motor industry as a pillar of China's economic development.

And the environmental officials can't hold back the aspirations of more and more Chinese people to own a car.

Car production
Car production: a pillar of economic development

Beijing environmental official Li Teijun believes the solution is to prevent excessive car use. He is establishing bus-only pedestrian zones and putting up parking fees. He hopes to persuade people to leave their cars in the suburbs and take the bus into town.

Consumerism vs. clean air

But developments in public transport are still finding it hard to keep pace with an explosion in car ownership. In Beijing alone, an extra 100,000 vehicles come onto the streets each year. China's anticipated entry into the World Trade Organisation is expected to further boost demand by bringing cheaper car prices.

It is this tension between environmental concerns and the desire of China's vast population for Western-style consumer comfort which may ultimately determine whether blue skies really do return to the nation's cities.

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See also:

25 Jan 99 | Asia-Pacific
China scraps the 'people's cab'
02 Sep 00 | Asia-Pacific
China's capital runs dry
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