(Bloomberg) -- As Chinese Premier Li Keqiang welcomed delegates to Beijing for the annual meeting of the legislature this week, he vowed to "make our skies blue again," raising hopes for residents who started the year under a blanket of smog and have wheezed through periodic bouts of pollution since then.
Researchers and environmentalists say residents may need to be patient -- 10 years or longer, according to estimates, before Li’s aspiration becomes a reality.
As Li outlined his plan in his annual work report at the opening of the National People’s Congress on Sunday, skies over the nation’s capital were indeed fairly clear, helped by a slight breeze and what Chinese media refers to as "NPC blue," mostly clean air during the 10-day stretch when thousands of lawmakers from around the country converge on Beijing.
“Even if air quality continues to improve, it is likely that Beijing and other major cities in China will continue to experience severe winter haze” due to weather factors and the difficulty of reducing use of coal for winter heating across northern China, said Anders Hove, associate director of research at the Paulson Institute.
Three years after China announced a “war on pollution” at an earlier legislative session, progress has been steady but slow. Last year in Beijing, for example, average concentrations of PM2.5 -- small particles that pose the greatest risk to human health -- fell almost 10 percent, the biggest annual decrease in the past four years.
Still, the annual average remains more than seven times the World Health Organization’s recommended level.
Based on the pace of reduction in pollution between 2013 and 2016, Beijing will still need about a decade before it can enjoy blue skies, Greenpeace East Asia forecasts. The problem isn’t in Beijing alone. About 74 percent of 366 cities monitored fell short of official air quality standards, according to Greenpeace data.
Despite new initiatives announced by Premier Li to combat smog, the struggle is complicated by the tension between competing goals of environmental protection and economic growth, which hit the slowest pace since 1990.
“In the long run, because of its connection to chronic illness, air pollution has immense economic cost, so addressing the problem is an issue of long-term economic development,” said Hove.
However, even with increased attention and environmental inspections, many firms still take risks to violate air-pollution reduction measures. More than 500 companies and construction sites were punished for their violations, China Central Television reported in January, citing people it didn’t identify.
“The cost of breaking rules is lower than following them,” leading companies to pollute, said Ma Jun, founder and director of the Beijing-based Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs. Also, despite new environmental performance measures for local officials, many still favor economic targets as long as there’s no big environmental problem, said Ma.
Many loopholes exist in the execution of environmental policies at the lower levels, said Dong Liansai, climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace.
Pollution is also a touchy political issue at NPC ahead of a Communist Party leadership shuffle toward the end of the year, and officials are seeking stability above all else. Authorities are sensitive to calls for action following a 2013 documentary, "Under the Dome", about the consequences to China from smog, that was viewed by more than 100 million people in a matter of days before it was censured.
Among Premier Li’s initiatives, the nation will start 24-hour online monitoring of all key sources of industrial pollution. The legislature will set a clear deadline by which companies must meet discharge standards and shut down those companies that fail to meet standards after the deadline, according to the plan.
“We should learn about emissions of companies and raise punishment costs for violations,” prompting companies voluntarily to fulfill standards, said Dong.
Premier Li said China will suspend or delay construction on or eliminate at least 50 gigawatts of coal-fired power to ease overcapacity risks and make room for clean energy to develop. The nation will shut down all small coal-fired furnaces in established districts of cities at the prefecture level and above, Li said.
‘A Top Issue’
“Air quality is becoming a top issue in China now,” Gordon Kwan, head of Asia-Pacific oil and gas research at Nomura Holdings Inc. in Hong Kong, said on a Feb. 21 conference call.
“Last winter was one of the worst when it comes to pollution, so the government is very keen to lower the dependence of power generation on dirty coal and switch to more renewables like solar and wind and natural gas,” Kwan said.
Coal still accounted for about 60 percent of China’s total energy consumption in 2016. The share of non-fossil fuels rose about 2.3 percentage points to 14.3 percent, the government said last year.
The world’s biggest carbon emitter, China has said it plans to invest 2.5 trillion yuan ($362 billion) in renewable energy through 2020, helping create 13 million jobs.
“It should take China less time to address the problem than, for example, London” due to more technologies to reduce emissions today, said Hove. “But it will still require years or even decades for China to reach international air quality standards.”
With assistance from Feifei Shen