After "Under the Dome": Can China solve its air pollution crisis?

Somewhere in there is the city of Lianyungang. Image: Gety.

When it comes to air pollution, the government of China is currently standing on an ever-eroding precipice. On one side is a growing citizens movement, that is demanding clearer skies and a healthier environment; on the other are deeply instilled industrial, economic, and political patterns that cannot be rapidly revamped.

Before it was removed from the Chinese internet one week after it went live, Chai Jing’s Under the Dome documentary showed more than one third of the country’s 600m internet users the effect that air pollution is having on their health and how their country’s industries and government are complicit in its apocalyptic proliferation.

China does in fact have a range of environmental protection policies. But a recurring theme of the film was that they are often subverted by industries, intentionally overlooked by government officials, and are ultimately unenforceable by the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP). “We don’t have any teeth,” was how one MEP agent put it.

Under the Dome didn’t necessarily call for new environmental policies, but simply pushed for the proper enforcement of those which are already established. In other words, it argued that Chinese companies and government officials should be below the law – a similar agenda to that being pursued by President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign. To drive that point home, Chai showed estimates of how much less China’s air would be polluted, if only the country’s current emissions laws were obeyed.

Under the Dome got people talking across all sectors of the society, and a huge portion of the population realized that they were all saying the same thing. Before discussion of the film was purged online, the social network Sina Weibo alone contained over 280m posts on the subject.

“All of my friends are talking about the documentary,” said Ryan Lee, a musician from Shandong. “Everybody says they didn’t know the situation was serious to such a degree.”

A tourist wears a face mask in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Image: AFP.

After a series of colossal air pollution incidents, colloquially dubbed “airpocalypses”, in which cities more than a thousand miles apart were concurrently choked to a virtual standstill by the same blanket of smog, the Chinese government took its monumental first step towards improving air quality: it admitted that there was a problem.

Until then, they’d made a succession of denials and excuses for the haze, from it being fog to it being caused by farmers burning crops. The state run newspapers didn’t call the haze pollution, and even those living in extremely polluted regions often didn’t realise that the opaque atmosphere that surrounded them was anything to worry about. Few even found any reason to talk about it.

“When I was in high school, no one talked about air pollution,” said Diao Yanli, a teacher who grew up in an extremely polluted part of the Yantze River Delta. “People are more concerned about it now.”

Today, everybody knows exactly why they can’t see the blue sky above, and Under the Dome put a large swatch of the Chinese population on the same page about the issue. The film substituted the random scraps of knowledge that people tended to have about air pollution into a coherent body of information, outlining not only why and how their country has become so polluted, but offering directives on what ordinary citizens can do about it – namely, drive less and report the abuses of environmental laws they see.

This has caused many people in China to look in a single direction for a resolution to the haze: to the state. “I blame the government because the government controls most of the departments that are related to environment [and] who take charge of most of the factories and commercial organisations,” a young women from Ordos told me.

Having acknowledged the problem, the government automatically became responsible for fixing it. Premier Li Keqiang recently told the National People’s Congress that, “Environmental pollution is a blight on people’s quality of life and a trouble that weighs on their hearts. We must fight it with all our might.” The mayor of Beijing described his own city as being “unliveable”. And the president himself, Xi Jinping, declared that he was going to punish “with an iron hand” anyone who dared damage the environment, “with no exceptions”.

There’s a very close relationship between government decision makers and polluting industries: often, they are one and the same. China also features widespread corruption, and political fissures within the party itself.

For all those reasons, direct fiat has so far proved to be an ineffective strategy in China’s pursuit of cleaner air. This isn’t just a matter of industrial avarice: China’s big polluting industries employ millions of workers, and are the economic foundations of entire provinces. The proverbial switch on these industries can’t just be flipped off.

Mostly, China seems to be trying to ween itself of its biggest sources of pollution gradually. It’s providing massive subsidies and creating a more conducive environment for renewable energy production, as well as less polluting forms of transportation and green urban design.

In 2013 China invested $68bn into the renewable energy industry; last year it was $89bn. In less than a decade China has become a global leader in solar, wind, and hydroelectric power, producing more GW of renewable energy than the total power output of every other country in the world except the USA.

Nearly 300 new eco-cities are also currently under construction or are in the planning stages across China. While building hundreds of new cities may seem to be the least ecological thing a country can do, China’s eco-cities can be seen as testing grounds for a new kind of urbanism. They’ll allow green engineering designs and clean energy gadgetry — like seasonal energy storage — to be put into practice on a large scale.

Cyclists wear face masks in Beijing. Image: Getty.

Nonetheless, China’s dependence on coal is not yet hovering in the rear view mirror. Although the country will continue developing its renewable energy industries it will likewise continue expanding its use of coal, and are in the works to double total energy capacity by 2030.

According to the World Resources Institute (WRI), China is to add 363 new coal fired power plants, and increase coal energy capacity by 75 per cent, over the coming decades. By 2050 China’s coal usage is expected to drop to 30-50 per cent of its total energy supply – but that’s still an incredible amount of coal being burned. Coal, and the pollution associated with it, are going to be a part of the Chinese condition for a long time yet.

Right now, there is an ever-growing push by the Chinese public for cleaner air – and now the government has acknowledged the scale of the problem, it’ll be looked upon to produce results to match its rhetoric. Unlike other issues, the government cannot hide air pollution; the public can not only see it, but can monitor it, too, with apps and websites that show an up-to-the minute air quality index.

The question facing the Communist Party is how it can balance public opinion, governmental fissures, industrial profit motives, and the stability of the domestic economy. An unrequited commitment to improving air quality at this point could backfire and make the Party look inept and weak – exactly how an authoritarian regime cannot afford to look, if it easy to retain the legitimacy to continue ruling. 

“If things get worse and our government still does nothing, I'm not sure what will happen,” a woman from Jiangsu province told me. “It's not like anything else. It's survival.”

Wade Shepard is the author of "Ghost Cities of China".

 
 
 
 

Councils are failing to protect tenants from bullying landlords

Rental properties in Coventry. Image: Getty.

If your rented home has a broken boiler, mould growing up the wall, or a kitchen that’s falling apart, you won’t be surprised to learn that it’s not unusual. But it’s by no means acceptable: serious defects in the home can harm your health, so the law rightly requires landlords to keep their properties free of them.

Nevertheless, one in seven private rented homes has at least one severe hazard, and is classed as unsafe. That’s more than 600,000 households spending a large portion of their income on something that could make them ill.

Councils have responsibility for enforcing standards in the private rented sector. If environmental health officers find hazards on inspections of rented homes, they can take enforcement action, such as serving an improvement notice on the landlord, who is then compelled to carry out repairs. Failure to comply can result in prosecution, or, since 2017, a civil penalty of up to £30,000.

Yet most councils are not using their powers. Generation Rent made Freedom of Information requests to 102 of the councils with the largest private renter populations. Just 78 reported the Category 1 (severe) hazards they found in 2017-18 – a total of 12,592 of them. But in the same period, these councils served only 2,545 improvement notices – so only 21 per cent of landlords with unsafe homes were forced to do anything about it.

Just eight councils had a ratio of improvement notices to Category 1 hazards of more than 75 per cent, and five appear to have issued no improvement notices in the whole 12-month period.

Some councils tell us that taking informal action – such as sending warning letters and “hazard awareness notices” – is usually enough to convince landlords to make repairs before they need to reach for an improvement notice, which involves more staff time. But this pragmatic approach means that tenants are left exposed to a retaliatory eviction.

Because landlords can evict tenants without needing a reason – under Section 21 of the 1988 Housing Act – many use this to intimidate tenants into putting up with unsafe conditions. In 2015 Parliament passed the Deregulation Act which makes a Section 21 notice invalid if the council has served an improvement notice for severe hazards.

Our data show that only a handful of councils are reliably providing tenants with this protection. If councils aren’t routinely using their powers then tenants will continue to be cowed into silence.

This week a new law comes into force which goes some way to addressing this lack of support. The Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018 gives people starting tenancies from Wednesday onwards the ability to take negligent landlords to court over hazardous conditions. As well as forcing landlords to carry out repairs without relying on councils – which are, after all, experiencing deep budget cuts – courts can also award compensation to the tenant.

But unlike council-issued enforcement notices, the Homes Act does not protect plaintiffs from the no-fault eviction notice their landlord might issue in response. While compensation would be incentive enough for some to take action, there is a risk that any award would be swallowed up in the costs of moving home.

You’re much more likely to have a squalid home if you are on a low income, so the threat of having to find a new home when you have negligible savings is a potent one. Rather than rely on the Deregulation Act, tenants need to have basic assurance that they won’t be evicted for no good reason. Abolishing Section 21 would mean landlords would need valid grounds for eviction, so they couldn’t simply hang the threat of a forced move over tenants living in damp, draughty conditions. This – along with restrictions on rent increases, that other weapon of intimidation in criminal landlords’ armoury – would finally give renters confidence to exercise their rights.

Last summer the government consulted on a proposal for three-year tenancies, which would be a step forward in preventing retaliatory evictions, albeit only within the fixed term. We are still awaiting ministers’ decision on the next steps, but pressure is building across the political spectrum. On Saturday, the conservative Centre for Social Justice joined the growing chorus to scrap Section 21. Without reforming tenancy law substantially, the government can expect bullying of tenants to continue and the number of unsafe homes to remain stubbornly high.

Dan Wilson Craw is director of Generation Rent.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.