Asia-Pacific News

Can China host a smog-free APEC summit?

A cyclist wearing a mask rides along a road as heavy smog engulfs China.
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With major world leaders set to gather in Beijing for a meeting in less than two weeks, Chinese authorities are stepping up measures to combat air pollution.

Beijing and surrounding provinces have been plagued by poor air since the end of the "Golden Week Holiday" earlier this month, as industrial plants in the north returned to full capacity. Smog readings soared past the 400 mark twice – a reading above 300 is considered "hazardous" – marking the capital's second-worst polluted month this year.

CNBC's latest check on China's official air quality index showed pollution hovering at "unhealthy levels" of 181 on early Wednesday.

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Beijing's air quality could take a turn for the worse early next month as coal consumption rises during the winter season, according to the municipal environmental authority. Weak winds and little rain forecast in November could exacerbate the smog.

As the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit on November 7 – when twenty one heads of state including U.S. President Barack Obama will meet in Beijing – approaches, Chinese vice premier Zhang Gaoli proclaimed the battle against pollution the "priority of priorities" for the country last Friday.

Xi'an Bell Tower is seen in heavy smog in Xi'an, Shaanxi province of China.
ChinaFotoPress | Getty Images

Smog-control measures

Beijing aims to reduce air contaminants by 40 percent before the meeting using the same drastic pollution control measures employed before the 2008 Summer Olympics, according to Chinese media reports.

69 factories in the capital will be shut temporarily when Asia-Pacific leaders convene in Beijing, while 72 more will cut output. Surrounding cities like Tianjin and the heavily industrialized provinces of Hebei, Shanxi and Shandong will also adhere to strict anti-pollution policies, China Daily reported.

To minimize pollution from traffic congestion, government employees in Beijing will be given six days off, while public schools will be closed. A rule allowing drivers to use their vehicles only on alternate days will also be rolled out from November 3 to 12, reducing the number of cars on the road by 35 percent, the Beijing Traffic Management Bureau announced last week.

Zhuang Zhidong, deputy head of Beijing's environmental protection bureau, said he's confident the measures would return cleaner air to Beijing during the five-day APEC forum.

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Will it be enough?

Some analysts believe that the success of 2008's anti-smog measures are "nearly impossible" to repeat.

"It's not possible to close down all factories. Other measures adopted before the Olympics like burning gas instead of coal, have been forgotten after the Games concluded," said Hung Wing Tat, associate professor of environmental and civil engineering at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. "That's why levels of pollution like those in Beijing remain."

While there are analysts who believe that the mainland can repeat its feat in cleaning up the capital's air, such measures will unlikely curb pollution in the long run.

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"The smog-cutting actions have been effective but are impractical – the impact on the economy and lives of people are too enormous," said a representative from the World Wildlife Fund's (WWF) China climate and energy department.

The non-governmental organization believes that China can transition into a majority-renewable power system by 2050 via a two-pronged approach of conservation measures and renewable energy usage, according to a WWF report released in February. The transition would reduce carbon emissions from the country's power generation by as much as 90 percent by 2050.

"By fully embracing energy conservation, China has the potential to demonstrate to the world that economic growth is possible while sharply reducing the emissions that drive unhealthy air pollution," WWF's representative said. "Resolve and determination for the long term are what's needed."