Shanghai must act on its air pollution

Updated: 2014-03-24 08:28

By Hong Liang (China Daily USA)

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Shanghai is destined to play a key role in spearheading financial reform. But as the most cosmopolitan city on the mainland, it can do much more than that.

People in many other cities expect it to set an example in addressing one of the most pressing issues they are facing, air pollution.

Shanghai has made the successful transformation from a sprawling industrial heartland into a services center. In the process, the municipal government has created an environment where people can enjoy greenery, open spaces, clean streets and fresh air. That was, at least, the impression I got when I was living and working in Shanghai.

Since I left late last year, I've read numerous reports of worsening smog that has held the city in its grip for weeks. I wonder, if I return to Shanghai, whether I will still indulge in sojourns in the green fields across the street from the office or leisurely strolls along the tree-lined streets in the former French concession district.

Many Shanghai people, as expected, have been blaming the worsening air quality in their city on the pollution caused by the industrial activities in nearby cities and counties. They are mostly correct. But that does not mean that there is nothing they can do to make things better.

Nobody doubts the Shanghai government resolve to build a first-class city in preparation for what many people believe is its destined role as one of the world's major international financial and business centers. In fact, the hardware, in the form of an excellent highway network, adequate public transport and the many tall and gleaming office structures, are all in place.

But it seems that nothing can stop the attacks of foul air that spoil the otherwise perfect picture. I wasn't in Shanghai during the worst attack last year. But my friends told me it was bad, so bad that some of them sent their children to stay with their grandparents in other cities for months on end.

Some other cities, including Hong Kong and some European cities, for instance, are trying to combat their respective air pollution problems by limiting the use of cars, especially during rush hours in the busiest commercial districts.

The Hong Kong government said that it is considering the introduction of a toll system requiring cars to pay a fee for the privilege of entering the city center during the morning and evening rush hours. This is a widely seen as a radical proposal because the free use of roads built with public funds has always been taken for granted by people in Hong Kong.

But the traffic congestion, which is blamed for being one of the causes of the worsening air pollution, has greatly softened public resistance to road tolls. More and more people are calling on the government to ban cars from the busiest streets in the most popular commercial districts.

Milan in Italy bans all cars from the roads in the city when the air pollution indicators exceed what is considered the acceptable level. And several other European cities have adopted similar, though less drastic, measures to clean up the air.

The Shanghai government is known for its determination and decisiveness when it comes to enhancing the city's image. Now is the time for swift action to combat smog, which is not only tarnishing Shanghai's image but, more importantly, threatening the health of its residents.

The author is a senior editor with China Daily, email:

(China Daily USA 03/24/2014 page11)