Tuesday, September 24th, 2013...1:35 pm

Brief Comments on China’s “Clean Air Act”

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China released an ambitious plan to curb air pollution recently, focusing on limiting coal, heavy industries, and highly-polluted vehicles in three triangle regions surrounding Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. New York Times and Reuters have pretty comprehensive reporting on this, and I just want to make two observations that seem to be missing.

 

1. Consider this: air pollution is now an important issue at the very top level (by that I mean the Politburo Standing Committee), however it is not a powerful portfolio. People watching this development (energy/ policy wonks, environmentalist, China hands, or U.S. policymakers seeking to use this momentum in China to spur some U.S. action) need to understand the difference between these two.

Let me put it this way: Zhang Gaoli, the Politburo Standing Committee Member and first-ranked Vice Premier who apparently is leading this effort, also has National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), state-owned enterprises, fiscal policy, agriculture, housing and energy on his plate — air pollution is his least powerful portfolio. Unless the Chinese leadership establishes a Politburo leading group (lingdao xiaozu) on air pollution control or environmental protection, which is what I think they should do next, it will continue to be difficult for leaders at provincial/ regional/ municipal and other levels to execute this plan.

 

2. The U.S. $27.77 billion investment in air pollution control revealed by Ministry of Environmental Protection spokesperson during the July 10th press conference  failed to materialize in the final plan. This reflects a failed coordination of details between related institutions and provinces, and is just one of many examples that reminds us that the successful execution of  this plan hinges upon cross-agency collaboration that China finds extremely difficult, in the absence of a strong and powerful central coordinating body like the one I mentioned before.

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