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By Michael Standaert
Feb. 19 — China is in the midst of a massive, long-term project to unify the infrastructure, bureaucratic and regulatory systems in the area known as the Jing-Jin-Ji—which includes Beijing and Tianjin municipalities and the surrounding province of Hebei—to create a megalopolis in the next decade in an area that is home to 130 million people.
The area is notorious for some of the world's worst air pollution, with Beijing's average small particulate matter (PM-2.5) density level at about 80 micrograms per cubic meter—around twice the national target.
The area is seeing more constraints on water resources due to overuse and contamination. Some areas also are acutely damaged by soil pollution, in addition to the residential, industrial and construction waste piling up around the capital.
China's hope is that by building more infrastructure, including high-speed rails, metro systems and intercity fast trains, and upgrading the economic profile of the region by reducing its dependence on heavy industry, it can begin to clean up the air, shorten lengthy commutes, ease traffic congestion and make the region more livable.
Unifying the region's environmental policy is the goal behind several recently announced plans and pilot projects.
Late last year, officials unveiled an ecological protection plan for the Jing-Jin-Ji and are crafting a pollution prevention and treatment plan.
Buttressed by amendments to China's new Air Pollution Control Law that went into effect Jan. 1, the Jing-Jin-Ji will aim to lower its small particulate matter density level to 73 micrograms by the end of 2017 and 64 micrograms by the end of 2020.
The area is also one of the key control regions under a Water Pollution Action Plan announced early last year, as well as a focus of increasingly strict water management plans being rolled out across the country that set limits on total water use, water pollution levels and water use efficiency. Jing-Jin-Ji aims to improve water quality and level off water consumption to around 29.6 billion cubic meters by the end of the decade.
The challenge ahead will be how to manage and allocate all these targets, as different cities within the region have different levels of economic development and industrial structures.
For instance, most major heavy industry has moved out of Beijing to neighboring Hebei and other nearby provinces. Knowledge and capacity for implementing environmental management differs throughout the region, with areas of Hebei often seen as lagging behind the two state-level municipalities that make headlines when air pollution levels meet red-alert status, as they did last December for the first time since the new warning system was established.
Hebei will need assistance in terms of mechanisms to fund industrial transformation, pollution treatment and prevention, said Wang Jinnan, deputy director of the Ministry of Environmental Protection's (MEP) environmental sciences academy.
On Jan. 4, the MEP said a special investigation team has been established to help Hebei governments handle environmental problems. The same day, it announced that Hebei is being made a pilot province for the rollout of an environmental monitoring network the ministry hopes to eventually extend nationwide.
And on Feb. 4, the MEP announced in initial findings from the investigations that at least 120 company executives and local officials had been found to have violated environmental regulations, or were derelict in their duty. Some of the more severe cases could be transferred to judicial authorities.
Hebei also will be the first pilot province where bureaucratic reforms will implement vertical management of the environmental protection bureau (EPB) system, with the federal Ministry of Environmental Protection at the top and provincial environmental protection bureaus directly overseeing those below them.
In the past, local EPBs were funded by, and answered directly to, the governments in their jurisdiction.
A water quality monitoring network is also being established to unify the data in the Jing-Jin-Ji. It should be functioning by the end of 2016.
Hebei is also among the first provinces to start implementing new pollutant emissions licensing management policies, and judicial departments in the province have started to set up special teams to handle ecological crimes.
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