Despite China being something of a whipping boy for the West over its poor pollution record, many of its cities are putting significant efforts into cleaning up. And some are succeeding so well they are leaving the West behind. By Jeremy Torr.
Shenzhen, October 22, 2018. In 2015, research group Berkeley Earth estimated that up to 1.6 million deaths per year were caused by air pollution in China. This was a direct result of the breakneck speed of industrialisation, of the construction of hundreds of coal-fired power plants, and of untrammelled expansion of vehicle numbers – many dirty diesel powered trucks. A couple of years earlier, some 13 provinces had registered killer levels of air pollution,
Shenzhen, one of the largest (13 million people) and most productive (GDP of $304 billion – bigger than all of Vietnam) had seen a massive boom in high tech industry over the previous years.
This led to significant air and water pollution spikes. The results were enough to push China’s government into action, with a multi-year plan to clean up using both legislative and technological approaches. With a multi-billion dollar national budget, they targeted an ambitious 50% reduction in heavy air pollution days within five years (2020).
Thanks to this two-pronged approach, air pollution levels in Shenzhen are decreasing rapidly. Much of this is down to its well thought out and tightly applied transport policy. To get Shenzhen’s millions of people to work, to play and to see the family, the city has opted for an integrated zero-emission transport design.
Across all categories of vehicles, including trucks, trains, rental vehicles, taxis, and private cars, the city is implementing stricter regulations, incentives and support measures which should enable a rapid shift to low-low carbon, zero-pollution transportation. It has installed hundreds of thousands of electric vehicle charging points, and is trialling a new fleet of autonomous electric buses.
“These (approaches in Shenzhen) are driven by a world-beating focus on both administrative leadership, and citizen awareness,” notes the WWF in a recent report. If that sounds a bit too PR-speak, the WWF repport adds that this is not mere state propaganda and lip-service: “if administrators at every level in Shenzhen are not able to demonstrate performance contributions to the low-carbon project, their career progress is … stifled” the report adds.
Additionally, inspectors turn up randomly to test factory compliance to new, tighter standards. "We punish violators severely," Lu Xuyang of Shenzhen's Environment Commission said in a BBC interview recently.
For industrial players that are constrained by manufacturing processes, the city has introduced a municipal level cap-and-trade emissions trading regime. The WWF in an analysis described this as a “huge step by any standards” as it is not just a market mechanism for efficient pollution reduction but is a real social collaboration tool involving shared risk, responsibility and reward.
As a result, daily life in Shenzhen has changed dramatically. Almost gone are the daily facemask walks, the roar of smelly traffic. in have come new green lung parks and developments, better housing and improved air quality. In less than a decade, Shenzhen has reduced its overall average air pollution by around 50%, according to city data. Average airborne particulate matter (PM) 2.5 levels dropped by over 30% between 2013 and 2016, according to the World Health Organisation.
A significant amount of the pollution reduction is down to vehicle pollution reduction. As well as its fleet of more than 16,000 electric buses, Shenzhen is turning attention to other vehicles, and one of its easiest targets is taxis. The city government has implemented significant subsidies and incentives for both taxis and more privately-run charging stations. The city’s transport commission estimates that now, more than 60% of all taxis are electric, and says that number will increase as charging facilities increase. It has set 2020 as the target date for a total end for petrol or diesel taxis.
It’s not just cleaner, quieter, less polluted streets – the Shenzhen experiment is reaching upstream to the power generation sector. The city estimates that the bus fleet’s electric power will save the energy equivalent of 366,000 tonnes of coal, and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 1.35 million tonnes.
As if all those initiatives were not enough, the city is planning to expand its metro line system to become the world’s largest, with a staggering 597km by 2022, and up to 750 km in the decade or so after that. All in the pursuit of a centrally supported climate management policy that is still evading many western countries.
As a director of the China Ministry for Environment Protection, Cui Shuhong, noted at a press conference last year, offenders against Shenzhen’s new environmentally supportive approach will be censured if they do not comply.
"The stricter controls to combat pollution will phase out polluting companies - which disrupt the market order. So it protects the environment (as well as) public health," he said.
"This demonstrates that healthy and faster economic growth can happen along with an improved environment.”