As President Xi Jinping's speech at the 19th Party Congress showed, environmental protection has become an important priority for China in terms of its growth towards a prosperous, modern society. However, meeting the "people's ever-growing demands for a beautiful environment" is a goal that comes with a cost, as this week's events have shown. Widespread gas shortages across northern China have affected businesses, residents, and even schools across China's industrial heartland, leaving schoolchildren "shivering" and factories closing.
In an effort to cut coal use, and therefore air pollution, the Chinese government and local authorities stepped up their campaign to switch millions of households and thousands of businesses from coal to natural gas this winter. But in many cases, the switch was made before adequate preparation was in place. The Financial Times reported that local government teams removed boilers and stoves before replacement gas infrastructure was installed. Business owners trying to comply with new environmental standards are also struggling, and in some cases, they are having to shut down production for extended periods.
These new measures are part of a series of recent government attempts to clean up the environment, including a ban on the import of scrap materials and measures to encourage electric vehicle production and cut back on heavy industries. International commentators, while largely regarding the moves as positive, have pointed out the economic cost of China's environmental push. As Capital Economics estimated, China could lose nearly half a percentage point of gross domestic product growth this winter if it sticks to its pollution-reduction targets.
Even Chinese environmentalists are questioning whether the government's moves are too hasty. "The problem is not about what they are doing, but whether you can achieve the goal in a short period of time," said Ma Jun, the director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, to The New York Times.
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