Recently I came across several folks who are interested in bringing US Brownfield remediation technology to China. Their idea is based on the fact that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that as of June 2013, US Brownfields Program has assessed 20,449 properties completed 872 cleanups, leveraged 90,017 jobs and USD 20.1 billion in investment. A report from China estimated 600,000 “identified” contaminated “industrial” sites. Chinese central government has indicated intent to spending approximately RMB 600 billion on land remediation. This would be therefore a tremendous business opportunity for US firms who have the expertise in brownfield cleaning.
The extent of environmental pollution in China’s recent economic reform extended to every corner of the environment: air, water, and soil. Some even argue that if considering the environmental cost, China’s economic GDP growth can be close to zero. There is no doubt that huge investment will have to be made to clean up the polluted environment sooner or later.
Premier Li Keqiang, in his opening address to parliament on March 5, declared the war on pollution in an attempt to head off growing anger over the quality of China’s air, water and soil. If the government is really serious this time, with limited resources, which pollution would get the priority to be addressed? It is definitely not the soil pollution. Soil pollution issues mostly remain a secret in most part of China (Only Guangdong last year released its soil survey results, revealing that 28% land were contaminated). With the pro-GDP growth model continues, I am more pessimistic on when and how local governments would be forced to spend on soil cleaning. It is definitely a huge price that government have to pay, but how to force them to pay might take a long struggle within China. Hurdles before the technology input are huge.
Air pollution, the most visible one, especially it is most visible in the city of Beijing where the central government is located, will most likely get the priority. Reuters recently reported that Beijing’s mayor promised in January to spend 15 billion Yuan ($2.4 billion) on improving air quality this year as part of an “all-out effort” to tackle pollution. I recently came across an online news article showing spectacular birds-eye view of global cities. Till the end, a picture of Shanghai shows the Bund vaguely in a gloomy day, followed with a solid grey color titled Beijing. Public awareness about the air pollution, and how it had in reality affected the daily life in Beijing, all have pushed this air cleaning policy to happen.
Although it is now on the top agenda of the Beijing government, it will be a tough negotiation between the Beijing and other regional governments. Since the origin of air pollution in Beijing is from provinces which hosts heavy polluted industries, including steel, coal and cement plants, which moved out from Beijing in recent years. Now Hebei’s factories are blamed for their hazardous smog that increasingly envelops the capital.
A succession of Hebei officials used the annual session of parliament in Beijing this month to urge the central government to boost subsidies to help with job losses and other costs from mandated cuts in industrial production across the country. One local official said Hebei was taking on too much of the burden. More subsidies suggests that the central government and Beijing government will have to pay for the clean air.
While local officials said Hebei was making a sacrifice, environmentalists say it has been given a free ride for too long, routinely allowing its industries to beat rivals by ignoring environmental regulations and industrial standards imposed by Beijing. Beijing, on the other hand, did not enforce its regulation to avoid the risk of unemployed steel workers spilling over into the already strained capital.
What kind of crisis can push the local government to start tackle the soil pollution?