2016-12-13 11:50:06

Beijing’s latest draft of the regulations that determine how the city handles extreme weather events is a recipe for disaster, experts say.

At the heart of the issue is the classification of smog as a natural disaster, which activists fear could mean neither emitters nor regulators will end up taking responsibility for what is in the end a mostly man-made problem.

On Dec. 1, the Beijing Municipal People’s Congress released the third draft version of the regulations for preventing and controlling meteorological disasters. According to the draft, heavy rain, snowstorms, cold snaps, gales, sandstorms, heat waves, droughts, lightning, hail, frost, fog, and smog all constitute “meteorological disasters.”

As early as May, environmentalists and legal experts expressed their concerns over the inclusion of smog as a type of meteorological disaster in the initial draft of the regulations.

Dong Liansai, a climate and energy campaigner at international environmental organization Greenpeace, told Sixth Tone Tuesday that smog results from both emissions and climatic factors. The new regulation may become an excuse for emitters and the government to shirk responsibility for reducing smog, said Dong. “This will affect public awareness and cause misunderstanding,” he added.

Bao Cunkuan of the Department of Environmental Science and Engineering at Fudan University in Shanghai told Sixth Tone on Tuesday that he, too, feared the regulations would send the wrong message.

“Laws are there to regulate human activity,” said Bao, who added that listing smog as a meteorological disaster would only determine how authorities react to it and not tackle its underlying causes.

In an article published in July, Bao argued that the prevention plan outlined in the new regulations, which propose building “ventilation corridors” — areas of low-rise buildings designed to let air pass freely through the city — as well as other measures to increase airflow, would only tackle the symptoms of the problem, not the root cause.

Li Xiaojuan, a spokesperson for the legislation committee of the Beijing People’s Congress, said on Nov. 23 that the committee had decided to include smog on the list of meteorological disasters in order to improve the city’s emergency prevention system.

To address doubts, Li said, the third draft was amended to emphasize both the prevention and management of smog, as well as to stress the government’s responsibility for mitigating the risk of disaster.

Another reason for smog being classified as a meteorological disaster in the Beijing regulations is that neighboring Tianjian municipality and Hebei province have both already done this, a legislation committee official told state news agency China News Service in May.

On Monday, an official from the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau said emissions of major pollutants in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei area are 3.5 to 5 times the national average. The air quality index in Beijing reached 285 on Monday, a level the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calls “very unhealthy.”

As temperatures drop and heating systems power on, air pollution has become an increasingly common feature of Chinese news headlines, from officials tampering with air quality sensors in Xian, to an environmentalist suing the government for the cost of a smog mask in Zhengzhou, to — most recently — artists protesting heavy pollution in Chengdu.

(Header image: Bus passengers wear masks on a polluted day in Beijing, Dec. 12, 2016. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images/VCG)