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China's ambivalent relationship with its high-carbon economy continues at critical gathering

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. Creative Commons, Friends of Europe, 2012

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. Creative Commons, Friends of Europe, 2012

Climate and energy issues were at the forefront at a pair of annual meetings held this week in Beijing.

The National People’s Conference (NPP) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC)—commonly referred to as ‘the two sessions’ or ‘Lianghui’—brought together thousands of delegates and high-ranking members of the Communist Party of China to discuss legislation, budget, and the all important yearly growth target.

Leaders announced a target growth rate of 7.5%, unchanged from the previous two years’ targets. The continuation of China’s breakneck expansion has some observers, like Mark Williams, Qinwei Wang, and Julian Evans-Pritchard of Capital Economics, worried about the nation’s “structural problems.”

Much of the discussion at the meetings focused on deepening reforms in China, where exceedingly fast economic growth has often outpaced the buildup of adequate regulatory frameworks.

Chinese leadership is acutely aware of the need for change. Indeed, a work report presented by Premier Li Keqiang contained the word “reform” upwards of 75 times.

The work report prominently features an ecological compensation mechanism that is designed to reduce smog and harmful particulate matter in pollution-plagued cities.

The report said that a market-based, cross-region system that would reward environmental stewardship would be “pushed forward” in the coming year.

Air conditions in Beijing have been garnering widespread international news coverage, as dense clouds have blanketed the city, prompting official emergency measures. The city’s Heavy Air Pollution Contingency Plan contains measures for closing schools, restricting vehicle access to the city, and shutting down factories during spikes in air pollution.

As bad as conditions are in the capital city, newly released data show that nine Chinese cities suffered more days of severe smog than Beijing did last year.

At a press conference on Wednesday, Li vowed to combat polluters with an “iron fist.”

His remarks were largely directed at the operators of coal plants and high-emission vehicles. In addition to releasing billions of tons of warming greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, fossil fuel combustion produces PM2.5, an especially dangerous kind component of smog that has been linked to respiratory problems and cancer.

Li described pollution as “nature’s red-light warning” against “inefficient and blind development,” and added that China would aim to reduce coal consumption by 22 million tons over the course of 2014.

While the decrease in coal usage might be as much a function of economics and market forces as of policy, it is nevertheless a welcome development given the undeniable health and climate impacts of burning the dirty fuel.

And even though environmental issues were a hot topic at this month’s meetings, there remains little tolerance for environmental activism in China.

In February, the China Central Television Finance Channel publicly indicted the Chinese government’s environmental failures and was immediately censored. In retaliation, at least one editor at CCTV was dismissed and the channel was forbidden from any future reporting on Beijing’s smog.

Meanwhile, a state–sponsored think tank was censored for releasing a report about the pollution crisis, and at least one person—the artist Du Xia—was detained by state police in central Beijing for protesting the air conditions there.

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