Chinese city air pollution

+ Tackling air pollution in China will require a huge amount of political capital alongside massive financial investment in mitigation measures.

Smog is now a firm feature on the political map of China. It is the subject of regular discussion in the media. It is a facet of political debates. And even the ‘Decisions’ document adopted at the close of the Third Plenary of the 18th Party Conference references “the development of an eco-conscious civilization… building a beautiful China” alongside cultural and social reform.

This recognition at the highest level that action must be taken is positive news for a country that has suffered significant disruption from air quality issues. Critical pollution levels in megacities such as Shanghai and Guangzhou have recently closed highways and prompted warnings for people to stay indoors.

However, the scale of the task ahead cannot be underestimated. Tackling air pollution in China will require a huge amount of political capital alongside massive financial investment in mitigation measures.

Estimates suggest the Chinese authorities could spend more than RMB3 trillion (circa US$500 billion) tackling the problem. Money will only do so much though.

Arguably, the more difficult task will be finding the political will required to balance a very real demand for jobs and growth in the economy with need to minimise environmental impacts. This will require real leadership at every level. Yet it can be done and it must be done.

Smog is already adversely affecting the ability of mega-cities to attract and retain talent. And if a city can’t persuade people to come to live and work there, then this will in turn impact long term competitiveness and economic growth.

The good news is that the subject is now high on the political agenda of central and local government, which will be heavily scrutinized in their performance in reducing air pollution.

Not only that, but firms such as Arup are already working with local government and developers on a number of eco-city developments to demonstrate that the twin aspirations for a growing economy and a healthier environment can be reconciled.

Projects such as Changxindian, Taihu New City and Yongding River all show that there is great potential for China to balance development, job creation, social change, governance, resource constraints and environmental impacts.

The transition will also generate its own growth, creating a major market for firms that can increase energy efficiency and lower emissions.

It will take time, but it is achievable. The challenge will require years, and probably decades, of committed work by the best brains and expertise available to make the transition work. Just as importantly, it will require effective regulation to create sensible rules that are routinely applied and effectively policed.

Yet the transformation of cities such as London and Los Angeles shows that the scourge of smog can be tackled successfully.

It will require some clear thinking to beat back the haze, but the tools are all there if the political will of China’s leadership remains resolute.