Evidence-based policy to usher cleansing winds of change
China’s air quality is bad – everyone knows that. We should not, however, ignore the fact that China is moving ahead in air quality management very quickly, and we should not confuse achievement with what it still has to do. China is doing a lot of the right things although there is a long way to go. After all, it took the US some forty years to set standards and develop its sophisticated regulatory system.
China’s 12th Five Year Plan (2011-2015) has specific air pollutant reduction targets to fulfill. Bowing to public pressure, in March 2012 the Chinese government tightened air quality standards and published a phasing-in timetable nationwide. Moreover, much more air quality data is now available on-line from Chinese environmental protection agencies’ website – a major breakthrough.
An essential part of China’s ability to deliver on emissions reduction depends on its ability to measuring and tracking progress. Thus, the government has pledged to invest heavily in monitoring and evaluation systems, as well as in human resources capacity training, the importance of scientific data and the need to make evidence-based decisions going forward.
China has been focusing on controlling SO2 and its goal is to dramatically reduce it from coal-fired plants by 2015. NOx is another major pollutant to be controlled, affecting power plants, cement kilns, industrial boilers and vehicles. Beyond these, the new air quality standards also include volatile organic compounds (VOC) and ozone.
Ozone is produced through a chemical reaction involving NOx and VOC. The trick is that both NOx and VOC need to be reduced in a balanced way, which varies depending on local atmospheric conditions. This means different programs need to be designed for urban and suburban areas because of the different relative amounts of the two pollutants. The science and policy to get it right are tough for regulators in the US and Europe – but China knows it needs to increase its science capacity to do so too.
In addition, China is also zeroing in on its three largest metropolitan areas – Beijing-Tianjin, the Yangtze delta with Shanghai, and the Pearl River Delta with Hong Kong, Macao and Guangzhou. These relatively rich and developed regions are expected to play their part in spearheading new regional air quality management.
The sword of science
For many years to come, most Chinese cities will fail to meet the stricter standards but they know tight standards are their battle swords to drive emissions reduction across the economy.
Scientific evidence is now used to help decision makers to see when, where and how they need to exert control for the largest gains. Scientists are frequently called upon to work with policymakers so that policies are evidence-based. Senior Chinese officials, who are now expected to deliver results, request expert briefings so they can better grasp essential issues in order to take decisions.
Over the past twenty years, China’s much-improved ability to measure and understand the complex chemical transformation of air pollutants has enabled scientists to give pointed advice. The Beijing Olympics in 2008 and Guangzhou Asian Games in 2010 provided opportunities for scientists and policymakers to work closely together.
By deliberating together with non-government experts policy makers can see how to use knowledge across different disciplines, including science, economics and finance, enabling them think broadly about policy options. Governments benefit greatly if their policymakers can develop a habit of deliberating with local expertise.
Deliberation is for understanding and exploration; decision-making comes later. In between deliberation and decision, officials can reach out to stakeholders, general advisers and NGOs to test ideas. In this way, governments can tap knowledge directly.