A not-so-nice day for a bike ride. Photographer: Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images
A not-so-nice day for a bike ride. Photographer: Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images

The “airpocalypse” that settled on Beijing and vast swathes of northern China last week, blotting out the sun and shrinking visibility to a few meters, drove even longtime residents indoors. The air quality index, which measures a fine particulate known as PM 2.5, averaged more than 16 times the recommended upper limit. The Chinese capital became all but “unsuitable for human habitation,” as one report (quickly censored) put it.

The smog is sure to be a central topic at the National People's Congress this week in Beijing. Scientists claim that by blocking so much natural light, air pollution may threaten the crops that account for 10 percent of China’s gross domestic product. And as it spreads to Korea, Japan and even California, the dirty air could soon become a geopolitical issue.

Choking China

The government says it will take years if not decades for the curbs it has wisely set on factory emissions, coal use and high-polluting cars to take effect. In fact, the air could be cleared more quickly if authorities focused on the core of the problem, because a few big emitters account for most of the pollution, an analysis of real-time data has begun to show.

For example, the eight dirtiest enterprises in Shandong and Hebei provinces, north of Beijing, produce 37 and 30 times the emissions of nitrogen oxide, respectively, as the eight dirtiest in Beijing itself. In Hebei, 21 power plants spew more than 90 percent of the emissions from such utilities; if these plants actually adhered to the new limits the government has recently decreed, their emissions would fall by more than half.

Similarly, diesel trucks, which make up only about 5 percent of road vehicles, account for half of nitrogen oxide emissions. Speeding up efforts to raise their fuel standards, would also aid the cleanup.

The main obstacle to progress is that the biggest polluters tend to be the best-connected politically. They ignore the rules because it’s cheaper to do so and because they can. The central government’s environmental agencies, in contrast, are weak and overstretched, and lack the ability to enforce all their well-meaning rules and standards.

Nevertheless, this must be Beijing’s focus -- to publicly expose the most egregious culprits, and rein them in with intrusive inspections and heavy fines. Large state-owned companies should be forced to clean up their supply chains, while state-owned banks should be forced to restrict lending to polluters who refuse to adhere to emissions standards.

If they really want to succeed, Chinese authorities must also welcome, rather than reject, the public's help. Although the government has in the past been relatively tolerant of open debate and even satire online about the smoggy skies, censors have recently grown more heavy-handed as criticism of the party has mounted.

The more people know about what's causing China’s pollution, the better equipped they will be to bring pressure on the enterprises and the local officials responsible. China’s leaders deserve credit for showing a long-term commitment to restoring blue skies. But they need to move faster, and almost certainly can’t do that on their own.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net