Pollution: The cost of clean air | The Economist

A DESOLATE scene surrounds Little Zhang’s Tyre Repair in the dusty rock-mining township of Shijing, in the northern province of Hebei. Zhang Minsheng, the owner, still gets some business from passing traffic. But the recent closure of nearby rock quarries, because of air-pollution restrictions, has taken its toll. He reckons his monthly income has fallen by 30-40% to around 4,000 yuan ($640). Next door a wholesale coal business has closed. So too have a small family-owned barbecue restaurant and an alcohol, tobacco and grocery store. Red characters posted by their entrances still forlornly proclaim their “grand opening”.

Last year on a typically smoggy day in Beijing, Li Keqiang, the prime minister, declared “war” on air pollution—a problem that has become a national fixation. Smog remains a grave danger in most Chinese cities, but environmental measures are beginning to show teeth. Regulators in the most polluted provinces are ordering mass closures of offending enterprises. In some areas officials are being punished for failing to control pollution. Policymakers are placing less emphasis on GDP growth—long an obsession of officials at all levels of government—and talking up greenness.

The transformation will be painful. China’s new toughness on polluting quarries, mills and factories coincides with an economic slowdown that will make it harder to create new jobs for those laid off. Slower growth is in line with the government’s efforts to curb wasteful investment, and with it a dangerous build-up of debt. The slowdown also happens to be helpful in curtailing pollution: China’s consumption of coal, a huge contributor to smog as well as to climate-change emissions, fell slightly in 2014 after 14 years of growth.

Mr Li’s war is especially bloody in Hebei, which is blamed for much of the smog in Beijing. Keeping the air of the capital clean is a political priority. Chinese leaders have been embarrassed by the damage caused to China’s international image by the city’s relentlessly grey skies. They worry that the smog could fuel dissatisfaction with the government and undermine stability in the capital, as well as affect their own and their families’ health. Dutifully, Hebei, which surrounds Beijing, has been trying to clean up. Since the beginning of 2013 it has reported closing down 18,000 polluting factories. In January Hebei Daily, a state-run newspaper, said that in Mancheng county, to which Shijing township belongs, 37 rock quarries and rubble pits had been shut.

via Pollution: The cost of clean air | The Economist.

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