China rolls out plan to clean its air - will it work?

Marketplace's Rob Schmitz sporting his 3M 6200 series air filtration mask on the streets of Shanghai.

A glimpse of Shanghai on its most polluted day on record, a month ago. China's government has set new clean air targets for the provinces near Beijing and Shanghai, but environmentalists worry the rest of the country is being left behind.

After a month of some of the worst smog on record, it rained in Shanghai this week, making today one of the cleanest-air days this winter. Puffy clouds hovered just above the city’s skyscrapers and blue skies could be seen for the first time in weeks.

But Wu Yao wasn’t taking any chances – the 26 year-old secretary walked to work wearing an air mask.

"It's become a habit," Wu says, "this clean air spell won't last long."

China’s government is poised to do something about that.

It aims to reduce pollution from coal-fired power plants around Beijing and Shanghai by up to 25 percent within the next three years. Job promotions for local officials will reportedly be dependent on whether these goals are met.

Environmentalists are encouraged, but say more needs to be done. "This kind of coal consumption control target should actually be implemented on a national level and not be limited to the Eastern part of China," said Huang Wei of Greenpeace China.

She says some of the country’s worst air pollution is plaguing less developed cities in Western and Northeastern China that don’t fall under this new clean air plan. She wonders why China’s leaders aren’t doing more to develop wind and solar energy infrastructure in China. "We have these technologies, we have this advantage, and we have this market, so that’s the opportunity that China is facing right now."

But back on the street in Shanghai, 23 year-old graphic designer Li Xiangwei has his doubts. "There are simply too many people in China that depend on economic growth," laments Li. "It’s hard to keep that up if you’re too busy cleaning up the air."

How about doing both?

While China’s developed East coast plans to clean up its air, the government announced this week that China produced a hundred million tons of coal this past year – six times more than the previous year, ensuring that China continues to burn more coal than the rest of the world combined.

Keep those masks on, China.

About the author

Rob Schmitz is Marketplace’s China correspondent in Shanghai.

A glimpse of Shanghai on its most polluted day on record, a month ago. China's government has set new clean air targets for the provinces near Beijing and Shanghai, but environmentalists worry the rest of the country is being left behind.

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