Heavy smog in the Chaoyang district of Beijing in November last year. Photo: AFP

You know when it is bad because the streets are full of people wearing red, blue and slate-gray masks. The air is also thick with the taste and smell of sulfur.

On one November day last year, Beijing issued an orange smog alert, which is the second highest level.

Dangerous particles of PM2.5, an incredibly nasty pollutant, were off the charts at 158 micrograms per cubic meter. The smog was so severe it triggered orange alerts in Tianjin and cities in Henan, Hebei, Shandong and Shanxi provinces, the government-owned news agency Xinhua reported.

“It can be suffocating at times,” recalled Tian Xiaojing, 32, who works in a bank in the financial district of Chaoyang. “It is like a toxic gas. We should not have to put up with this. It is so harmful.”

In a move to eradicate the problem, China rolled out a business tax on serial polluters at the start of the year, which will take effect from April.

This across-the-board law will relate to air and water quality, as well as noise pollution, according to China Daily. The aim is to promote “environmentally friendly production models” for high-quality economic growth.

“All the preparations have been completed,” Wang Jianfan, director of the Ministry of Finance’s tax policy department, told the state-owned newspaper and the English-language mouthpiece of Beijing.

The pollution issue cannot be underestimated. Data collected by Greenpeace showed that more than 1.1 million people a year die from breathing toxic air.

As for the financial implications, the French banking corporation Societe Generale has estimated that environmental protection measures will cost China 0.25% of annual GDP, which runs into trillions of dollars.

For bank employee Tian, it is a price worth paying. “Even with air purifiers in my apartment, pollution on certain days can exceed the norm,” Tian said. “It can be scary when you start thinking about the damage it can cause to your health.”

Rumblings on social media websites, such as Weibo and WeChat, have forced Beijing to make combating pollution a priority. Last year, the air quality in the capital and across northern China did improve because of draconian-like restrictions on the use of coal.

Elsewhere, it was a different story. In a report released on Thursday, Greenpeace revealed that the reduction in air pollution levels across the world’s second largest economy was just 4.5 percent in 2017.

This was the smallest decline in four years and was attributed to industry ramping up coal, cement and steel production.

“China’s national action plan has brought massive reductions in air pollution levels and associated health risks, but policies favoring coal and heavy industry [such as steel] are holding back progress,” Huang Wei, a Greenpeace East Asia climate and energy campaigner, told Reuters news agency.

Part of the problem was that the country’s economy grew faster than expected last year, fueled by a construction boom and major infrastructure projects associated with the massive Belt and Road Initiative or new ‘Silk Road’ program.

Statistics suggest that steel output hit a record 832 million tonnes in 2017, while cement production also soared. Both sectors tend to add to the nation’s pollution problems.

Still, progress is being made, Greenpeace highlighted in its report, with a warning that more needs to be done. “The second phase of the air pollution action plan must be as ambitious as the first and should include targets for ozone reduction,” Wei told the media.

Name, shame and tax is the next stage. The only loophole in the plan is that Beijing will allow provincial governments to set their own rates based on environmental and economic conditions.

On air pollution, for example, the levy is 1.2 yuan (18 US cents) to 12 yuan ($1.80) per unit of atmospheric pollution.

The local government in Liaoning, a northeastern province in China’s old industrial heartland, will charge the lowest possible rate. Smog-prone Shanxi province, the biggest coal-producing area, has opted for 1.8 yuan.

In comparison, Beijing and its surrounding regions have decided to go with a 12-yuan rate because of mounting political and public pressure.

“Considering the slowing economy and the ability of enterprises to pay, the adjustment [in emission charges] should not be too large,” the provincial authorities stated in a draft document.

But then, it is important to point out that the main culprits are those same state-owned “enterprises” which employ millions of workers in plants and mills that can only be described as archaic.

Until they are eventually phased out or modernized, peering through the smog of war against pollution will be a hazardous occupation. 

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