Sunday, April 28, 2013

Beijing's View of London's Air Pollution (China Dialogue)

Inside London’s egg shaped City Hall on the south bank of the River Thames, London Assembly member Darren Johnson sits in a hall as grey as the sky outside, wearing his trademark green tie and welcoming a group of special Chinese visitors.

Johnson is a member of the Green Party and is meeting with a group of popular Chinese microbloggers, each with hundreds of thousands of followers. Most of them come from Beijing and are fed up with their city’s air pollution. They hope Johnson can offer some advice.

The Great Smog of 1952 is thought to have killed more than 4,000 Londoners. But in the 60 years since, London has cast off its Chinese nickname of the “Foggy Capital”, an allusion to the translated title of Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist. For many in China, the city offers an example of how to face up to and deal with air pollution.

But London’s story may not have the hoped-for fairytale ending. By EU standards, London has one the worst air quality of any European capital.

In mid-March, the city suffered several days of severe pollution, with PM2.5 levels reaching more than 40 micrograms per cubic metre – an amount which would hardly raise an eyebrow in Beijing, but still well above levels deemed safe by the World Health Organization and EU standards.

In a non-descript five-story building belonging to the UK’s Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), senior scientific advisor for air quality Emily Connolly points out that the city’s average PM2.5 level is now 20. “And for us that’s serious,” she says. The Chinese audience can’t believe it, and ask the translator to check, and then check again. In Beijing, PM2.5 levels soared to 600 micrograms per cubic metre in January.

By comparison, London’s reaction seems almost obsessive. Confirming that London’s average PM2.5 level is lower than even Beijing’s best day, the Chinese crowd jokes that “If you haven’t breathed PM2.5 levels of 500, you haven’t lived.”

Back to 1952?

But the British aren’t being obsessive without cause.

DEFRA puts premature deaths from diseases caused by harmful particles in the air at 29,000 annually – enough to reduce average lifespan for the country by six months.

Frank Kelly, a leading researcher into the health impacts of air pollution at London’s King’s College, reaches an even more worrying conclusion: even if the UK controls PM2.5 levels at around the EU standard of 25 micrograms per cubic metre, he says, more people will suffer from chronic illnesses, such as heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. There will also be more detrimental impacts on unborn children, he adds.

London is also facing increasing pressure from outside. In the run up to the 2012 Olympics, the International Olympic Committee warned the city that it would reclaim 25% of broadcasting income – around £700 million – if air standards weren’t met. The EU has long ruled that countries where air quality fails to meet standards for over 35 days can be fined up to £300m.

Mark Demery, head of external relations for the London Assembly, told Southern Weekend that London has been talking action to avoid those fines.

In 2008, under the previous mayor Ken Livingstone, London established a 980 square-kilometre emissions zone, with costly charges or even fines for polluting buses, lorries and diesel vehicles. London Low Emission Zone (LEZ) signs dot streets from Piccadilly to Oxford Street to the cultural centre of Covent Garden. Demery explained that the current mayor Boris Johnson is considering expanding the LEZ.

Some unusual measures have also been taken, including the use of “pollution glue”. Since early 2012, dust suppressants have been sprayed on 15 of London’s most polluted streets to capture PM10 pollution, which it is hoped is then washed into sewers or carried off on vehicle tires. Preliminary research suggested this could achieve reductions of between 10% and 14% in pollution, though a more recent study from King’s College has questioned the efficacy.

The special “glue” spraying vehicles work from midnight to 6am, when few Londoners will see them.

But the mayor’s preferred weapon is under investigation by the EU. It is only a temporary measure, and as soon as you stop spraying the effect ends. If the EU find this is a form of cheating, those huge fines may be inevitable.

It is structural problems that cause London headaches, according to Simon Birkett, a clean-air campaigner who gave up a job at HSBC to dedicate himself to the campaigning on air quality. Birkett told Southern Weekend that “decades of development in road transportation have turned visible pollution invisible. The harmful effects of air pollution are increasing faster than pollution itself is being reduced. In this sense we’re back in the time of the Great Smog, even if we thought we’d left it behind.”

Birkett’s group, Clean Air in London, has for years been pressurising the government and lobbying the EU to tighten air quality standards.

In 2001, the European Commission passed a directive on ceilings for national emissions of atmospheric pollutants, which member states had to implement by 2010. 12 nations, including the UK and Germany, failed to do so.

In early 2013, the EU gave the UK a warning over its failure to comply. But despite almost inevitable delays, the UK was the only nation not to apply for an exemption. A DEFRA spokesperson explained that “the UK cannot reach EU standards by the end of 2015,” meaning that an exemption would have done no good.

Tom Levitt, managing editor at environmental website chinadialogue, worries that the UK will still struggle to get the job done: “It’s just the same old story of London failing to clean up its air.”

Weakened legislation and opposition

The UK has been procrastinating on air pollution ever since the Great Smog of 1952.

The government’s first response to that tragedy was to shift blame and deny the need for legislation to combat pollution.

“I am not satisfied that further general legislation is needed at present,” said then minister of housing and local government Harold Macmillan – later prime minister – despite a report from the London County Council making clear the dangers of air pollution.

He proposed setting up an investigative committee, but warned that the government could not cure all ills. Health minister Iain Macleod also pleaded helplessness. “Really you know, anyone would think fog had only started in London since I became a minister,” he joked.

Under pressure from members of parliament and the LCC, the government eventually backed down and a committee of inquiry was formed, chaired by Sir Hugh Beaver.

Sixty years later, Robert Vaughan says that the delays in legislation were most likely due to years of debate and discussion: “The debate on how the government should respond to air pollution, and if it should limit or ban the types of fuels people could use, continued until 1955. It was only then that the Beaver Committee published its report and legislation became possible.”

The committee identified the chief culprit: domestic fuel use was less efficient and created twice as much pollution as industry. The government must ensure supply of smokeless coal, which the public would have to use during smoggy periods, while the Met Office needed to warn of those periods in advance, the report said.

Dspite the report identifying the problem and proposing a practical solution, the UK government – facing a long list of urgent tasks in the wake of World War II – remained reluctant to act. A group of MPs decided to table their own bill, bypassing government inactivity. One of the MPs involved was Gerald Nabarro.

That prompted the government to come up with its own alternative bill. Weaker than Nabarro’s proposed bill, the Clean Air Act passed in 1956 and provided a basis for dealing with air pollution.

It is also not commonly known that air quality standards, widely accepted today, were once subject to opposition.

At the time, the Greater London Council was a stalwart supporter of the EU’s air quality standards. It argued that lessons had to be learned from the smog and standards set to tackle the problem head on, rather than reacting to it passively.

But the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution disagreed: “While we welcome the intent to improve air quality… we do not think that the achievement of this aim by imposing rigid statutory limits is either wise or practical. We believe that such limits would be unenforceable in practice and would bring the law into disrepute.”

The debate ended in 1995 with the Environment Act, which required the government to produce national air quality standards and targets.

“People still don’t want change”

As coal-burning declined in the UK, power plants alongside the Thames reinvented themselves – as art galleries, or high-end apartment complexes.

It is impossible to think people today would ever go back to cleaning out chimneys and raking half-burnt bits of coal out of the ashes to reuse. But decades ago, when the government started to eliminate coal-burning as a response to the 1952 Great Smog, Londoners stood in opposition. Some of the upper and middle classes saw the coal fire as “a symbol of traditional British life”.

To deal with the root causes of the smog, the government set up strict smokeless and smoke control areas. And alongside strict enforcement, subsidies were provided for domestic fires to be converted.

“It is hard to imagine that 50 years ago many Londoners did not realise this was the right policy – and the same is true today,” said former mayor Ken Livingstone at an event to mark the 50th anniversary of the Great Smog in December 2002. Now, as then, people don’t like change.

When, in 2008, London needed to implement the emissions zone to cut new forms of pollution from vehicles, there was strong opposition from vehicle manufacturers’ associations and others. These groups complained that the charges and fines would badly affect owners of polluting trucks and construction machinery.

In a café in Old Street in east London, Tom Levitt recalls the air quality commitments made by the current mayor during his election campaign – but he thinks many have not been kept.

“London hasn’t been able to implement stricter emissions zone rules and eliminate polluting vehicles, and this is due in part to opposition from ‘white van man’,” said Levitt.

In the UK the term “white van man” refers to anyone who drives a small commercial van for work – plumbers, locksmiths, delivery drivers. These people were hit hardest by the LEZ charges.

But fortunately the government did not stand alone. Environmental groups, parliament and the city government mobilised political and commercial resources to deal with air pollution, all the while patiently telling the public that this was their responsibility too.

Today measures such as driving less, taking the underground, choosing more efficient vehicles and saving energy at home are advocated in government slogans and taught at school. They have become a part of the everyday lives of Londoners.

But today London is still under fire for the quality of its air, and both the UK government and the people of London are facing a difficult choice, similar to that of 1952.

Data to use

For the civil servants of DEFRA, it isn’t enough to just sit in the office and try to tackle air pollution. As the EU requires member states to make pollution data public, DEFRA has a specific transparency strategy.

Even before the advent of social media, DEFRA and other ministries were providing information by e-mail and telephone hotlines. Now websites and social media platforms are also used.

“The government has to give the public the data, because they are the taxpayers,” said Emily Connolly. DEFRA’s own website encourages the public to watch this hard-won data more closely, to make it more valuable.

A major part of the work of Connolly and her colleagues is publishing air pollution data and health advice via a UK Air website and associated Twitter and Facebook accounts.

To help ordinary people understand what abstract pollution data actually means, the UK Air website uses a colour-coded air quality index with 10 different levels. The deeper the colour, the worse the pollution – Band 10 is purple.

Health advice from government experts is given alongside the pollution data. In the week prior to the arrival of the Chinese delegation, the website was advising susceptible groups to reduce outdoor activity and also strenuous indoor activity, due to high pollution. The advice is so detailed it even tells asthma suffers to use their inhalers more often.
And while many employers might ban staff from using social media sites during working hours, for Connolly tweeting is actually part of her job.

In May 2012, DEFRA opened an official air quality Twitter account. The pollution index is tweeted three times daily through the week, and twice at weekends.

But after several months the account has less than 500 followers, failing to keep up with the Clean Air in London group. DEFRA is considering having pollution data included in weather forecasts – nobody in Britain would miss that.

The UK Air site also makes policy suggestions for government, depending on the degree of pollution.

“Once we’ve published the data, nobody else needs to,” explained Connolly. “And we license the data so others can use it.” She went on to say that using social media to make data available to both the public and business is a major target for DEFRA. They believe only this will motivate Londoners to work together to change their dirty air.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Sustainable Transport Development in Indian Cities (WRI Insights)

Link to the article

Indian cities are urbanizing at an unprecedented scale and pace. Over the next few decades, India’s urban population is expected to increase significantly, from 377 million in 2011 to 590 million by 2030.

The problem is that the country’s existing urban transport infrastructure is already over-capacity. This fact–coupled with the alarmingly high rate of traffic fatalities, increasing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, congestion, and urban sprawl–has created a sense of urgency to improve the quality of life in our cities now for the benefit of future generations.

Against this backdrop, WRI’s Center for Sustainable Transport in India (EMBARQ India), in collaboration with the Brihanmumbai Electrical Supply and Transport Undertaking (BEST), held its first annual CONNECTKaro conference last week. The theme was two-fold: first, to “CONNECT” sustainable urban transport to urban development, and second, “Karo,” a Hindi word meaning to “do it”–to make it happen. Scaling sustainable transport and integrating it with land-use development is essential so that Indian cities remain dynamic engines of economic growth, whilst providing a high quality of life for residents.

The conference was a major success, attended by more than 220 people representing public transport authorities, government planning agencies, civil society organizations, private corporations, media, and academia. Additionally, more than 2,100 people watched the conference sessions via live webcast.

Through a dozen sessions spanning two days, conference participants discussed in detail how to scale and replicate a variety of sustainable urban transport and development solutions in Indian cities. Five key messages emerged from their deliberations:

1) Bus Rapid Transit Is Here to Stay

This year is set to witness a significant expansion of bus rapid transit (BRT) systems in Indian cities. Janmarg in Ahmedabad, India’s first fully fledged BRT launched in 2009, will expand its network from 62 kilometers to 88 kilometers. New BRT systems are set to launch in Indore and Surat. In total, nearly 50 kilometers of additional BRT corridors will be operational in Indian cities by the end of 2013.

Meanwhile, other cities–such as Hubli-Dharwad, Pimpri-Chinchwad, and Naya Raipur–are in advanced stages of BRT planning and construction. Mumbai and Bangalore are in the initial stages of planning their own BRT systems. Given these developments, the next few years are likely to be a “tipping point” for the expansion of BRT in Indian cities. With the right combination of political will, resource allocation, knowledge-sharing, and technical expertise, India could witness a true scaling of these advanced bus systems across its cities.

Key to realizing this success, as Abhijit Lokre from CEPT University pointed out, will be building BRT systems based on the idea of “local innovations for local conditions.” Given the diverse conditions in Indian cities, it would be counterproductive to insist on a rigid blueprint for BRT. Instead, flexibility in implementation would allow each city to develop a system to match its own unique needs and constraints.

Moreover, the experiences of Ahmedabad, Delhi, and Pune have shown that successful BRT systems in India are those that are treated as programs, not projects. We must move beyond the tendency to treat BRT systems as mere construction projects and commit to regarding them as systems that require continual resource investment, performance monitoring, and quality improvement.

Finally, treating public consultation and outreach as a core activity rather than an afterthought would result in increased buy-in from local communities.

2) Transit-Oriented Development Is the “Next Big Thing”

While the scaling-up of BRT systems is an encouraging development, merely increasing the supply of mass transport will not be enough. The integration of land use and transportation is also essential. Transit-Oriented-Development (TOD) is increasingly viewed as the next big solution that will connect sustainable transport to sustainable urban development in India. Given that the spatial expansion of Indian cities is inevitable, mainstreaming concepts like TOD will be vital for ensuring this growth happens in a compact and sustainable manner, minimizing negative externalities like sprawl, air pollution, and increased infrastructure cost.

However, a lack of clarity remains on what, exactly, TOD entails and what good TOD looks like. In Indian cities, TOD has been largely used to mean transit-adjacent development, with the discussion revolving largely around increasing the intensity of real estate development near transit stations. There has been little regard for other elements of the urban fabric. Instead, we need to focus more on “multi-modal transport integration, urban design, and enhanced priority for pedestrians and cyclists”, said Manjula Vinjamuri, Commissioner of the Directorate of Urban Land Transport, Government of Karnataka. This would ensure the creation of truly walkable and attractive neighborhoods.

There are lessons to be learnt here from India’s BRT experience. The scaling of BRT resulted largely from the existence of a high-quality Indian example, like Janmarg, to build support for the concept. This proof-of-concept was followed by significant technical and financial support from the central government through the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM). Similarly, developing good demonstration projects (promising pilots are underway in Delhi and Hubli-Dharwad) and ensuring that these concepts are integrated into city master plans and funding allocations for urban renewal (the second round of JNNURM, for example), would go a long way toward mainstreaming TOD.

3) City Bus Systems Will Remain the Backbone of Urban Transport

City bus services are and will continue to be the primary mode of public transport for the majority of India’s urban citizens. In major metropolises like Delhi and Bangalore, buses account for more than 40 percent of all motorized trips. For medium and smaller-sized cities, buses are and will remain the only cost-effective mode of public transport.

Improving the scale and quality of city buses, then, should be central to any city’s strategy to promote public transport over private vehicle use. Significant efforts have been made toward this goal. In 2009, the Government of India, through the JNNURM, funded the procurement of 15,625 buses for 61 cities across India. At CONNECTKaro 2013, Dr. Sudhir Krishna, Secretary of the Indian Ministry of Urban Development, reiterated the Indian Finance Minister’s commitment to fund the procurement of an additional 10,000 buses for public transport in Indian cities.

But much remains to be done. Buses “are still seen as a downmarket mode of transport,” said SK Lohia, Joint Secretary of Urban Transport at the Ministry of Urban Development. Modernizing city bus services will be crucial to changing this mindset.

Redesigning bus networks and routes to make services more efficient and user-friendly, as well as using technology to improve passenger information systems will be essential. While there are encouraging modernization efforts already underway in cities like Bangalore and Mysore, efforts must be made to share their results to facilitate the scaling-up of such initiatives to bus-based public transport networks across India. “Improving the quality of buses to make them more attractive and comfortable for users will also be required”, said Jamshyd Godrej, WRI India Chaiman, a goal that necessitates greater engagement with manufacturers.

4) Pedestrians and Cyclists Must Be at the Core of Urban and Transport Planning

Every year, more than 130,000 people in India die as a result of traffic accidents — one-tenth of the global total. If current trends continue, traffic crashes will become the fifth-leading cause of death among all age groups by 2030, surpassing major diseases such as tuberculosis and AIDS. The most vulnerable road users are pedestrians and cyclists.

One of the reasons for this danger is the disproportionate allocation of road space. Mriganka Saxena from the Delhi Development Authority made the point that although Indian cities have a high share of walking and bicycle use, 80 percent of road space is allocated for only 15 percent of users (those driving private vehicles).

Participants discussed several strategies for improving pedestrian safety, including:
  • Leveraging the large investments in mass transit systems to improve pedestrian environments around transit stations. For example, areas around the Mumbai Metro and Monorail line stations are being designed to increase pedestrian access and safety. Scaling up this work to the mass transit systems currently under construction in many Indian cities will go a long way toward ensuring safe access to these transport networks.
  • Industrial associations and business districts can take the lead in improving pedestrian environments, without waiting for larger, city-wide initiatives. For example, businesses can create green spaces or pedestrian-friendly environments. One such project is the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation’s (MIDC) initiative in Mumbai.
  • Civil society can take the lead in bridging the design capacity gaps that public agencies sometimes face. For example, the TenderSURE project in Bangalore sourced U.S. $160,000 through civil society groups for the development of road design templates. The project then leveraged this funding into a U.S. $56 million commitment by the Karnataka State Government to provide adequate space and safety features for pedestrians while constructing 30 km of major roads in the city.
Ultimately, central and state governments will need to rethink their priorities while designing roads, placing pedestrians’ and cyclists’ safety and comfort at the core of their road development process.

5) Engagement with the Private Sector Is Critical

A final key message from the conference focused on the tremendous opportunity to shift private sector investments toward sustainable outcomes. A recent study indicated that Indian cities will need almost U.S. $871 billion in infrastructure investments over the next 20 years. Of this amount, nearly U.S. $500 billion is needed for transport infrastructure alone. Given fiscal constraints in the public sector, a majority of this money is expected to originate from private investors.

In addition, real estate development will continue to be one of the largest sectors in urban investment. The manner in which such private developers plan their projects — building them around cars or building them to be supportive of non-motorized travel and public transport — will have significant impact on the future sustainability of Indian cities. Businesses will also increasingly invest in providing goods and services for urban consumers, some of which will focus on transportation.
Therefore, there is a significant opportunity to channel the actions of private sector players into sustainable transport and urban development initiatives— whether through real estate developers embracing sustainable transport principles in their projects; entrepreneurs creating companies that deliver sustainable transport services; or financiers providing the capital that allows these outcomes to materialize.

Private sector investors are also “increasingly keen to invest in the transportation infrastructure space”, said Dr. Armin Bruck, CEO of Siemens India. However, such investments have historically been dominated by the state, and therefore significant knowledge gaps in terms of opportunities, viable business models, and regulatory requirements exist.

National and central government policies that support the development of sustainable transport solutions could help increase private sector investments. Madhav Pai, director of EMBARQ India, proposed developing a Sustainable Transport Market Development Alliance between private companies, government regulators, and civil society groups, which received broad support from participants. Such initiatives will create an ecosystem that channels private sector investments toward sustainable transport and urban development outcomes.

CONNECTKaro outlined a plan to help ensure that India grows sustainably. Encouragingly, we came away with the feeling that there is now a sense of urgency to act—to get to the “karo,” and put these ideas into action. Pursuing sustainable transport solutions now can create a sustainable future for Indian cities.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Walking Is An Impossible Game in Hong Kong

Simon Ng, Head of Transport and Sustainability Research of Civic Exchange was featured in HK Magazine's cover story about pedestrian planning in Hong Kong. Simon, in the article, explains how development projects make pedestrians walk longer distances, and discusses the failures of and recommendations for the pedestrian zones.
HK Magazine Cover Story - Pedestrian Planning: No Clear Path

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Beijing Won't Meet Air Quality Standards till 2030 (China Dialogue)

Beijing has finally decided to do something about its air pollution. Last week, the city announced a multibillion yuan campaign to tackle its environmental problems, an urgent follow up to last month’s parliamentary sessions, where the capital’s infamous air pollution – dubbed “airpocalypse" by the media – was the subject everyone was talking about.

The environmental investment plan will see 100 billion yuan spent on areas including sewage treatment and air pollution over three years, according to state media. Beijing will also start to implement its 2013 Clean Air Action Plan, which contains a variety of measures aimed at bringing down the city’s major pollutants by a modest 2% in 2013.

Despite these initiatives, policymakers failed to address the elephant in the room. Action to tackle Beijing’s air pollution cannot be seen as serious without parallel efforts to stall growth in regional coal consumption. This, however, is beyond the scope of Beijing’s plan and requires collective efforts from neighbouring provinces.

Both official statistics and scientific assessments show that coal-burning is the largest source of the three main pollutants linked to PM2.5: sulphur oxide, nitrogen oxide and primary particulate matter. PM2.5 is shorthand for fine particulates measuring 2.5 microns or less in diameter, which have been at the centre of the public furore over air quality in China over the past two years.

In addition, Beijing’s air pollution problem is, to a large extent, regional and trans-boundary. According to one study published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, an average of 39% of Beijing’s PM2.5 comes from emission sources outside the city. The same study also found that when there are sustained winds from the south, namely from Hebei and Shandong provinces, non-Beijing airborne pollutants can contribute 50-70% of the capital’s PM2.5 levels. 

The need for a regional coal cap

A quick flick through China’s energy statistics book tells us just how coal-addicted Beijing’s neighbours are. In 2011, Shandong and Hebei collectively consumed nearly 700 million tonnes of coal, making them the first and fourth biggest consumers among China’s provinces. Each burned through more coal than Germany, Europe’s largest economy, and together they exceeded India’s total coal consumption. Putting it another way, more coal is consumed within 600 kilometres of China’s capital than in the entire United States.

The crucial need to control coal use and address air pollution at a regional level is driven home by the scale of Hebei’s energy consumption within the Jing-jin-ji (Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei) region. Hebei is responsible for 80% of coal consumption within the region, and 77-90% of the emissions of the three main pollutants.

Even if Beijing can immediately achieve its proposed annual coal cap of 15-million tonnes (which translates into a saving of about 7 million tonnes of coal) this reduction is significantly overshadowed by the huge energy appetite of Hebei. Without any movement from Hebei, the emission control guarantee from the new Beijing Mayor Wang Anshun is merely a palliative measure, rather than a breakthrough cure.

More worrying perhaps, is that while Beijing has managed to cut its own emissions swiftly, pollution from Shandong and Hebei increased dramatically in 2011. A decline in emissions thanks to the installation of sulphur-dioxide pollution control equipment in power plants between 2005 and 2010 has been followed by a staggering rise. Hebei’s SO2 emissions increased 15% in 2011, while Shandong’s rose by 19%, according to recent statistics.

The inconvenient truth is that progress in emission intensity brought about by technological advancement has been more than offset by the pace of aggregate coal consumption growth. In coming years, further gains will become even harder and more expensive to achieve, as the low-hanging fruit is taken.

Strong absolute coal caps are needed not only for Beijing, but also surrounding provinces. We haven’t, however, seen corresponding measures from Hebei and Shandong. Neither have we seen any concrete progress or timetable of implementation for the long proposed mechanism to coordinate regional air pollution control.

Mounting concern over health

The time for policy action is increasingly limited. Air pollution is already taking a heavy toll on a restive public. An estimated 8,572 premature deaths occurred in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Xi’an – four major Chinese cities – last year due to high levels of PM2.5 pollution, and caused US$1.08 billion in economic losses, according to research by Greenpeace and Peking University’s School of Public Health. A separate study by the WHO Global Burden of Disease project suggests that PM2.5 caused 1.2 million deaths in 2010 in China.

Worse, Greenpeace projects that, based on 2008 to 2012 reduction rates in particulate-matter concentrations, and given current policy efforts, Beijing will only meet the national air quality standard in 2031. That means it will take even longer for Beijing to meet the World Health Organisation standard, since the current national standard is looser than the international one.

A feasible roadmap to get rid of coal has already been outlined by various commentators. Deutsche Bank said in a recent report that nothing less than “big bang” measures could combat China’s air pollution, and recommended the country halve its coal-consumption annual growth rate from the 4% currently forecast for 2013 to 2017. Another 22% of coal consumption should be cut from 2017 to 2030, the bank said. It also called for a reduction in coal-related emissions by about 70% over the next 18 years.

Two pathways are unfolding in front of China’s policymakers. The path of unbridled, unsustainable GDP growth at all costs that ignores the health of its citizens, or a greener, cleaner kind of growth powered by smart investments in new energy, and guided by effective environmental policies and practices. As the nation’s renowned respiratory expert Zhong Nanshan bluntly put it on the sidelines of the parliamentary meetings last month: “When people’s health is at risk, how can we still put GDP first?"