SHANGHAI The heavily polluted northern Chinese province of Hebei said it will learn lessons from the smog that engulfed the region last week and step up its clean-up efforts, while the country’s Supreme Court vowed to crack down harder on polluters.
Hebei, which surrounds Beijing and was home to seven of China’s 10 smoggiest cities last year, has been on the front line of China’s nearly three-year war on pollution, but experts say enforcement remains lax amid concerns about the impact that smog controls have on economic growth and jobs.
In the Hebei capital of Shijiazhuang, average concentrations of small breathable particles known as PM2.5 were higher than 500 micrograms per cubic metre for three consecutive days last week – 50 times higher than World Health Organization recommendations.
In the province’s first official response, governor Zhang Qingwei said Hebei would work to improve “levels of scientific precision” when it came to controlling pollution.
In comments published on Monday, he said better “top-level planning” was required as Hebei sought to adjust its industrial and energy structures.
Hebei would also draw up more detailed plans to deal with issues like the direct combustion of coal, a major source of smog, the provincial government said on its official website (www.hebei.gov.cn).
The province aimed to cut PM2.5 concentrations to an average of around 67 micrograms per cubic meter this year, down from 77 micrograms in 2015, but officials have warned that the latest outbreak could make China’s pollution targets difficult to reach.
According to a separate notice, officials said on Sunday that despite the recent smog, caused in part by “the most unfavourable weather conditions since 1998”, Hebei was still on course to meet its goals, with emissions in Shijiazhuang set to drop around 12 percent this year.
Hebei has declared 2017 to be the “year of transformation and upgrading”, it said on Saturday.
Eight cities in Hebei launched “red alerts” last week in response to the smog, which reached record levels at some monitoring stations in the province, but it quickly came under fire from the Ministry of Environmental Protection, with a number of its steel firms singled out for failing to suspend operations.
Courts will widen the range of offences that constitute “environmental crimes” in order to make it easier to take legal action against polluters, a senior judiciary official said at a press briefing on Monday, a move that could help Hebei crack down on persistent offenders.
But Yan Maokun, head of the research office at the Supreme People’s Court, told reporters that it had struggled to gather the evidence required to prosecute, according to a transcript of the briefing published on China’s official court website (www.chinacourt.org).
“Air pollution is different from water pollution or soil pollution, and it is extremely difficult to get evidence for air pollution crimes because after the pollution is emitted it undergoes a large degree of dispersal, and is very quickly diluted,” Yan said.
Prosecutors would focus on specific offences such as tampering with sensor equipment or providing false emissions data, and firms found guilty would be punished regardless of the amount of pollution involved, he said.
(Reporting by David Stanway; Editing by Nick Macfie)