Financial News

  • 4 March 2013, 13:46

China Energy Firm Bows To Pollution Pressure

China's biggest energy supplier has announced it will spend 1.6bn upgrading the quality of the fuel it refines in an effort to tackle staggering levels of pollution.

The move by China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) follows new measures, implemented this weekend, to curb vehicle emissions in Beijing.

The Chinese capital has suffered two months of the worst pollution on record.

Throughout January and February, pollution levels across large areas of northern China reached historically high levels.

According to data recorded by the American Embassy in Beijing and collated by Sky News, there were just four days in February when the air was at a level considered by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to be safe.

For 17 days in February, the air pollution in Beijing rose to levels considered "very unhealthy" or "hazardous".

January was even worse.

For 18 days the air quality was at a level 12 times the safe limit; on three of those days it was off the charts - and on one day it was so far off the chart it reached 40 times the safe level.

The bad air prompted an unusually vocal call for action on social media which is usually censored.

Even the state-sanctioned newspapers were running editorials calling for action.

Consensus placed the blame for the bad pollution on the sheer number of vehicles in the city all running on low-grade fuel.

Unusual weather patterns this winter haven't helped.

On Friday, Beijing's municipal government implemented its "China V emission standard" across the city.

The measures mean that vehicles that fail to meet the standard, which is said to equate to the "Euro V Standard", will not be allowed on the roads.

New cheap vehicles that do not meet the standard will be banned from sale in the city.

It is hoped the new rules will help to reduce the chronic pollution, but experts say the quality of fuel sold at the pump also needs to be significantly improved.

The announcement by CNPC to improve its refining process will be welcomed by those forced to breathe the hazardous air.

At the moment, Chinese fuel is refined to a much lower standard, resulting in a cheaper end product which contains a high level of sulphur.

At some pumps, the fuel is diluted with very low-quality substances compounding the problem.

Many Beijingers drive cheap cars and, of those who consider upgrading, at least some think twice, given the quality of the fuel they are forced to use.

Beijing's topography makes matters worse.

Each vehicle's emissions are spewed out into a city that sits in a bowl surrounded by mountains. Combined, it all creates the perfect smog which the city's 20 million people must live with.

The Chinese authorities have implemented significant measures in the past decade to tackle the problem, but as the country leaps forward economically, one of the prices seems to be a level of pollution that is hard to control.

The Beijing Olympics in 2008 was widely seen as a watershed moment when the government realised it needed to take the issue seriously.

Heavily polluting factories were moved out of the city and air monitoring stations were introduced.

But it wasn't until 2012 that the government made the decision to release the data they were recording to the public.

In an interview with Sky News, the vice-manager of Beijing's Air Monitoring Department, Li Yunting, explained the impact of the data publication.

"Compared with previous years, the public now knows more and more. And more and more media organisations in China are starting to report the bad air, so more people are aware," she said.

"I can feel that more and more people are starting to express their opinions about the air. One reason is that our data only started to be known by the public last year. The PM2.5 data was only known this year."

The term PM2.5 refers to the smallest particles in the air which the WHO recommends should not exceed a figure of 25. For 17 days in February and 25 in January, the figure was above 200.

PM2.5 is considered the most harmful because the particles are small enough to travel inside the lungs and into the bloodstream.