China's government has bowed to pressure for more accurate air quality reports, but it may be years before it can deal with smog problems in cities like Beijing, experts say.
Anger has been building for the past year over official claims of "blue sky days" during periods when smog has been virtually impenetrable.
Following a public clamor, the Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center started releasing reports on fine particles of soot measuring 2.5 microns for the first time on Jan. 21.
The city's previous reporting covered only larger particulates of 10 microns or more, allowing officials to argue that Beijing had met its target of 274 "blue sky days" last year.
Concentrations of the finer "PM2.5" particulates are frequently rated as hazardous by hourly readouts from the U.S. Embassy's rooftop monitor posted at twitter.com/#!/BeijingAir.
Citizen action also pushed government into releasing more detailed reports after residents raised funds to buy monitoring equipment in cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Wenzhou, The New York Times reported on Jan. 27.
But the question is what the government can do next to ease complaints now that the public is getting a clearer picture of the pollution problem.
"If you're a citizen of Beijing or Shanghai, you don't really care what the government does to make the air cleaner. You just want cleaner air," said Trevor Houser, a partner at the Rhodium Group consulting firm in New York.
Costs and consequences
On Feb. 1, Beijing Mayor Guo Jinlong vowed to improve the city's air quality this year by focusing on the smaller particles, state media said.
On the same day, an unnamed official of the Ministry of Environmental Protection said the central government has targeted a 30 to 40-percent cut in major pollution emissions by 2015, the Communist Party paper People's Daily reported.
But specific actions to improve air quality will have costs and consequences that may lead to further pressures, and major changes are bound to take time.
For the past year, the State Council has been considering a "low-carbon plan" with caps on energy use under the current five-year program that runs through 2015, but the reported goals may only track the expected rates of growth.
Some cities may see little benefit without controlling China's annual consumption of some 3.5 billion tons of coal. In 2011, coal accounted for 72.5 percent of the country's generating capacity, according to the China Electricity Council.
With power consumption up 11.7 percent last year, it is unclear whether the public and industry would support major conservation measures that may be needed to cut smog.
But Houser argued that economic growth and the environment are not necessarily trade-offs, as shown by air quality improvements in U.S. cities over the past two decades.
"You don't have to cap energy use to deal with the type of air pollution that China's facing in an effective way," Houser told RFA.
"The United States has been successful in cleaning up our air, even though overall energy demand has grown," he said. "You do that by switching to cleaner forms of energy and installing pollution control technology on coal-fired power plants."
Houser sees efforts directed at moving coal-burning plants away from cities, providing more incentives for anti-pollution equipment and switching to natural gas for power generation in urban areas.
Coastal cities with higher incomes will make the first push for gas-fired power due to the higher cost but the shift will eventually spread throughout the country, Houser said.
It could take five years to make a meaningful impact on PM2.5 readings in Beijing, while air quality improvements for coastal China could take up to 15 years, he said.
One problem is that per capita incomes drop sharply in China's interior, making residents less willing to pay more for cleaner energy sources. Even if cleanups take place in cities, the wind will continue to carry pollution long distances.
"Ultimately, for Beijing to get a handle on this problem, they're going to have to find a way to transfer resources from coastal provinces that want cleaner air to interior provinces that are burning dirtier coal," Houser said.
Philip Andrews-Speed, a China energy expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said the government's task will be difficult for at least two reasons.
First, PM2.5 particles come not only from coal but also dust storms from distant western deserts, landfills, construction activity and traffic.
Even if the government does a good job in switching to gas, it may still take heat from the public whenever the wind blows more dust and then stagnates, as in Beijing over the past year.
The second problem may come from conservation measures if they include limits on power use, construction and cars.
"Then, you immediately undermine the aspirations for a better life of the population," Andrews-Speed said in an interview.
Beijing made major efforts to improve air quality in time for the 2008 Summer Olympics, moving coal-fired power generation out of the city, shutting steel plants and controlling car use.
Andrews-Speed noted that most district heating plants are now fueled by gas. Mass transit has also been greatly expanded, but smog problems persist.
Some reports suggest that conflicts over conservation may frustrate efforts to address pollution complaints.
On Jan. 30, for example, the official English-language China Daily reported that some car buyers have been skirting Beijing's strict auction system for license plates by registering in neighboring Hebei province, giving them unrestricted access outside the Fifth Ring Road.
Dealers and rental companies have also been leasing Beijing license plates for a monthly fee, the paper said.
Andrews-Speed said the open debate over costs and sacrifices that may be needed for environmental benefits has been delayed by the government's reluctance to end the "blue sky" pretense.
"Because of the lack of open conversation about these problems over the last years, I would say the population probably isn't ready [to make choices]," he said. "That sort of cost-benefit analysis is part of everyday life."
"This has got to start now, which is going to make the political task of undertaking immediate action much more difficult," Andrews-Speed said.