Big bang measures to fight air pollution
Comment of the Day

June 11 2013

Commentary by Eoin Treacy

Big bang measures to fight air pollution

Thanks to a subscriber for this insightful report covering potential measures to improve China's air quality. Here is a section
Among the many policies, we believe the following two sets had made the most visible impact:

1. Emission control: The Clean Air Act in 1956 instituted “smoke control area” in cities where only smokeless fuels could be burnt. It also promoted clean coal heating in households and relocated power plants away from downtown. The 1968 Clean Air Act reinforced the provision for abating sulphur dioxide emission, by introducing tall chimneys for coal burning factories to disperse pollution. The Control of Pollution Act in 1974 finalized the cap of sulphur content in fuels. As vehicle exhaust pollution became serious after 80s, the catalytic converters, devices designed to reduce nitrogen oxides emissions, have been required in all new cars in UK by The Road Vehicles Regulations since the early 90s.

2. Energy diversification and upgrade: Coal accounted for 76% of primary energy consumption in the UK in 1958. The British government has directed a successful structural shift by encouraging the switch from coal to oil, gas and later on renewable energy. Thanks to joint efforts of government R&D expense and private sector exploitation, sufficient gas reserve was discovered in North Sea in mid-60s, which was later commercialized in 70s. The increased popularity of natural gas (40+% of total consumption today) has squeezed the coal consumption to less than 20% of total energy usage;


These figures show that massive structural changes in the UK economy during the two decades were fundamentally responsible for the improvement of the air quality. The logic is simple: only when the industry sector shrinks relative to the size of the economy, energy consumption would decline; only if cleaner energy consumption as % of total energy consumption rises sharply, can the sulfur dioxide emission be controlled. These mean that, in China, the tasks for improving air quality are not merely the job of the MEP, but much more the responsibility of the top policy makers who can shape the direction of the overall economic and energy structure.

Eoin Treacy's view While anyone who has visited Beijing in the last decade may despair that the air quality can ever be improved, London's experience from the 1950s argues otherwise. With the right set of policies, significant inroads into the nation's pollution problems can be made. However, these will only be put in place with sufficient political will and against a background where the consumer and services sectors are healthy enough to take up some of the slack from the rationalisation of heavily polluting industries.

Since the utility, steel, materials and energy sectors represent significant vested interests within the upper echelons of the Communist Party; the case for reform is likely to meet stiff internal opposition. It remains to be seen if the new administration has the wherewithal to push through such reform. This will become clearer as the year progresses and some key posts are filled.

From an investment perspective, the consumer, healthcare and information technology sectors are likely to continue to benefit from this migration of official emphasis.

Natural gas demand remains a clear beneficiary both of China's continued development but also of any measures that will be put in place to improve air quality. This suggests that in addition to efforts to boost domestic supply, the outlook for LNG demand growth is likely to remain on an upward trajectory.

Back to top