New forces are emerging in China

More than a hundred cities in China are ranked as severely affected by air pollution. At its worst, the smog settles like a lid over the cities, hiding the sun.But now efforts are being intensified to reverse the trend. Growing environmental awareness, in particular, is blowing new vigour into China.

“In the past, no-one knew what this “haze” contained. Today everyone in the street is talking about levels of PM 2.5 particles and poor air quality. People are afraid of getting lung diseases and they don’t know how to protect themselves and their family from air pollution”, says Gao Si, Head of IVL’s office in Beijing.

IVL has been operating in China since 1986, working on a large number of different projects ranging from revitalizing polluted lakes to installing advanced water purification technology and surveys of carbon dioxide emissions and other air pollutants. The growing environmental awareness in China has also led to a new type of project. For example, in the Chinese province of Guizhou, IVL is involved in improving people’s environmental rights. The project, part of the EU-China Environmental Governance Programme, is being funded by Europe Aid. One important aspect is to develop awareness of environmental legislation and of the rights that citizens can claim if affected by environmental damage. Part of the project has been to produce an information film that is being taken to the public via TV and social media. The project has also produced a practical manual with guidance on environmental law and has supported the establishment of the Environmental Damage Assessment centre in Guizhou.

“The project aims to improve the public’s access to environmental justice and to improve environmental governance, which in itself is a big success in China. It’s important to raise awareness and knowledge among the public, as well as among local authorities, lawyers and not-for-profit organizations. I’ve heard many well-informed scholars say that it is only when we have reached a certain level of awareness that we can make a real difference”, says Gao Si.

Östen Ekengren, Executive Vice President at IVL, has been working in China for nearly 30 years. The country’s rapid growth has brought a higher standard of living to many Chinese. At the same time, the environmental damage is huge, with major consequences in terms of health problems.

“Environmental improvements have been made in China, but because growth has, at the same time, been so fast, you don’t notice them. When we started operating in China in the mid- 1980s, conditions were very poor – factories with rammed earth floors and pollutants that were just let out. Then, things moved very fast; in just ten years a whole lot happened. You can still see ramshackle old factories, but today they stand alongside ultra-modern facilities”, says Östen Ekengren.

The problem is not a lack of environmental laws in China. Environmental legislation is modern and tough regulations are in place in many areas. What is lacking, on the other hand, is supervision and compliance; in many cases there just isn’t any”, says Östen Ekengren.

“The Chinese government has set up ambitious environmental goals and China’s politicians today know that they have to do something about the air, otherwise they won’t be left in power. But it is difficult, 75 per cent of China’s electricity is generated by coal and as long as demand for electricity rises faster than the pace of expansion in renewable alternatives, things will get worse. To improve the situation, China needs to invest heavily in energy efficiency”.

So what can a Swedish environmental research company contribute in this huge country with its gigantic environmental problems?

“The main thing is to get them to create holistic solutions. In China, they take a top-down approach – they look at one environmental problem at a time. Our strength in Sweden is that we take a broader approach when trying to find a solution”, says Östen Ekengren.

As an example, he quotes the problem faced by the metropolis Tianjin. With a population of 14 million, Tianjin suffers, just as Beijing does, from notoriously poor air quality. Another serious environmental threat is the city’s management of waste. Today, most of the effluent sludge from the city’s water treatment plants is sent to landfill, posing major risks of water and soil pollution. A Swedish consortium consisting of IVL, Scania, Xylem and the environmental technology company Malmberg have come up with a proposal as to how Tianjin can convert sludge and organic waste into biogas. The biogas produced can then be used to operate city buses – a solution that can help bring about better air quality, produce a renewable fuel and at the same time solve the waste disposal problem. The solution for improving the air in the city is interesting those responsible in Tianjin, and a demonstration project consisting of 50 buses powered by locally produced biogas has been given the green light by the city’s management.

“The Tianjin project is a good example of how we can solve several environmental problems at the same time. With the right technology, water treatment plants can produce reusable water and generate a surplus of energy, biogas and nutrients. We hope that the concept will take off and spread to more cities – that will mean we’ve sown a seed and so we’re playing a part in creating a better environment in China”.

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