The medium, not the message

Author Tom Reed

Former TV news anchor Chai Jing doesn’t tell us anything very new about pollution in China — what she has done is push the issue to the top of the political agenda ahead of the country’s annual parliamentary session starting on 5 March.

Former TV news anchor Chai Jing doesn’t tell us anything very new about pollution in China — what she has done is push the issue to the top of the political agenda ahead of the country’s annual parliamentary session starting on 5 March.

Chai’s documentary Under the Dome, which takes the form of a TED talk, has been viewed an estimated 150mn times since being aired online on 1 March. The science is simply conveyed, often via cartoons. But it is the footage of Tangshan’s steel mills — like scenes from a latter-day Inferno — and footage of children playing basketball in dense, urban smog, that resonates most. Chai’s own child was born with a tumour, which she ascribes to living in coal-mining province Shanxi.

China’s tailpipe standards focus on reducing sulphur content. “The biggest changes we’ve seen in Europe’s air quality have been the result of fuel standard changes,” says Ben Barratt, lecturer in air quality science at Kings College London. “Sulphates and nitrates are major components of China’s haze — but they are not the only ones.”

According to Chai, cancer-causing benzo[a]pyrene emissions from gasoline engines without catalytic converters, and diesel engines, are the biggest health threats. The China 4 and China 5 gasoline standards have identical aromatics limits, suggesting that benzo[a]pyrene levels are unlikely to fall when the country switches to China 5, currently scheduled for January 2018. They may even have risen in southern Guangdong province, which switched last year, because the lower octane content of China 5 fuel reduces engine efficiency, as reported in Argus China Petroleum (ACP), 14 August.

China’s pollution problems, Chai says, are a failure of the country’s regulatory system and, in particular, the government’s failure to regulate over-mighty oil companies. The NDRC’s — China’s top economic planning body — main power is its ability to give or withhold approvals for construction projects. While it also sets energy prices and fuel standards, the commission defers too much in these areas to the oil giants that it supposedly governs. PetroChina’s former boss, Jiang Jiemin, briefly headed Sasac, the regulator of state-owned enterprises.

One of the more contentious claims cited in Under the Dome, from an unidentified NDRC official, was that PetroChina and Sinopec threatened to withhold fuel supplies when the government attempted to push through tighter tailpipe emissions limits. The oil giants have long complained about the costs of upgrading their refineries to produce lower sulphur gasoline and diesel, and dragged their feet over meeting deadlines (ACP, 29 January).

It is unclear why Under the Dome has not, so far, been censored. This is pretty remarkable in China, where officials prefer news items to be “harmonised” and discourage investigative journalism. Chai, apparently, has the backing of Chen Jining, the UK-educated minister of environmental protection (MEP).

The bigger question is how far even Chen’s support will carry her. Beijing has long struggled to keep the oil companies in check. The bosses of PetroChina and Sinopec have the same political status as ministers. And the MEP remains relatively low down the ministerial pecking order.

Chai may have the implicit support of President Xi Jinping. Xi came to power in 2012. Just weeks later, the concentration of PM2.5 — particulate emissions too fine to be filtered out by the nose and throat before they hit the lungs — hit 886 micrograms/m³, prompting even tame state-owned media to speak out. The World Health Organisation recommends keeping PM2.5 levels below 25 micrograms/m³.

Xi’s administration has been aggressively raising transport fuel standards — imposing the China 4 road diesel standard in January. It has moved to shut a number of coal-fired power plants and steel mills in the worst polluted northern region of Beijing-Hebei-Tianjin. It has tried to foster the use of cleaner-burning gas, signing a number of pipeline deals with Russia’s Gazprom.

Xi signed China up to curbing greenhouse gas emissions over the next 15 years in a landmark deal with the US agreed in November. And Xi appears determined to break the power of the energy monopolies.

China’s lawmakers will meet next week, but the country has enough rules for now. What it needs is enforcement and monitoring of existing laws and an independent energy sector regulator to keep the oil giants honest. But the concept of an independent regulator will fall foul of Communist party doctrine. For all his efforts so far, Xi looks highly unlikely to countenance the creation of a regulator to which even the party would be answerable.

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