In its battle against air pollution the Chinese government is increasingly taking its examples from the European Union, which has put in place an integrated policy package and mandatory limit and threshold values for air pollutants. Chinese policy makers and advisers have a keen interest in how the top-down European policies are translated into specific measures at a regional level, like in Flanders. This summer a delegation from Beijing attended an intensive training course at VITO.

VITO has extensive and wide-ranging expertise about air quality. For many years now, it has been providing its knowledge and technologies to Flemish, Belgian and also foreign policy makers, who apply them to develop and implement measures to combat air pollution. This is also a reason why some policy makers choose VITO for training course for their staff.

Its reputation as a "training centre" has spread wide and far, even beyond European borders. And so, VITO had the honour of hosting a delegation from the Chinese Ministry of Ecology and Environment over the last week of June and the first week of July 2018. The twelve delegates consisted of civil servants and advisers wishing to update their knowledge on the process underpinning the development of policy measures to combat air pollution and specifically the implementation of overall regulations (such as European Directives) at national, regional and local authority level.

Face masks and air purifiers

To say China struggles with poor air quality would be an understatement. A few years ago, it was difficult to step outside without a face mask in major cities such as Beijing when heavy pollution episodes occurred. Most urban citizens would also have an air purifier in their living rooms or bedrooms. Even so, there have been significant changes in recent years. One example is last winter, when the residents of Beijing were able to enjoy blue, smog-free sky in a long time, although this was admittedly in part due to the sustained due to the favourable weather conditions. cold temperatures. Official measurements nevertheless indicate a sharp drop in a range of pollutants, including particulates. It therefore seems that this vast country is making great efforts to improve air quality.

However, there is a lot more work required. ‘In practical terms, China only began to tackle this enormous problem in the past decade,’ says VITO’s Lisa Blyth. ‘Over the past years we have seen local authorities in some of the most polluted regions taking action, mostly by tackling coal-fired power stations and other main sources of pollution. These actions are linked to a national ambition to reduce concentration levels of particulate matter (specifically PM2.5). This is a start, but of course the approach needs to be significantly widened to include other sources of pollution and other regions.’

A firm foothold in China

VITO has had a firm foothold in China since 2010. It operates through its subsidiary LiboVITO, a company which (primarily ) implements air quality modelling systems that support local authorities in predicting pollution episodes so that they can warn their citizens and understand were the pollution is originating from. Blyth states: ‘For many years now, through LiboVITO, we have been offering our expertise, as well as software and computer models developed in Flanders’.

Naturally, the Chinese civil servants and advisers who came to visit VITO at the start of the summer already had a good background in effective policies for improving air quality. Their main interest therefore lay in the methods of rolling out such policies on different political and geographical levels. Blyth illustrates: ‘What are the appropriate measures at each level? How are European limit and threshold values translated into Flemish policies? How do each of the stakeholders (the European Union, its Member States, cities and citizens) contribute to the implementation of the policies? And how does the European Commission promote effective implementation? Aspects like these interest the Chinese very much.’

National and regional authorities

VITO had previously organised similar training courses to delegates from Chinese regional authorities, specifically Jinan, Tianjin and Hebei province. The latest delegates, however, represented the national authorities. Blyth explains: ‘The aim of the national government is to give regions powers to tackle air pollution themselves. But to be able to do so, the regions first need access to the appropriate information, such as the sources of pollution. The delegates were very keen to learn how VITO could assist with this.’

The training course was held over two weeks. With mornings focused on explaining policies and legislations, afternoons were spent exploring specific case studies and tools – tools that are part of VITO’s core business. Although VITO itself is not directly involved in policy implementation, they provide decision supporting software that is essential

in supporting policy makers in managing air pollution. The programme also included two ‘field trips’ to Brussels – one to visit the Flemish Department for the Environment and the other to meet policy officers from the Directorate-General for Environment at the European Commission.

Expectations met

Lei Yu (雷宇), delegation organizer and adviser at the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning, noted that the group’s expectations were more than fulfilled. ‘China is currently working on the second phase of its strategy to tackle air pollution. Together with the Ministry [of Ecology and Environment - ed.] we are focussing on the development of a new policy framework for tackling pollution in specific areas, such as the Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei regions, the Yangtze river delta, and the Fenhe and Weihe river plains. We will collaborate intensively with regional and local executives to this end, so we are not pursuing a top-down approach.’

The VITO training course has provided Yu and his colleagues with greater insights into the mechanisms underpinning European policies and specifically the roll-out of those policies across Member States and different policy levels. ‘We now also have a much better understanding of the role played by the various stakeholders, from the European policy makers and national governments to city councils and individual citizens.’

But exactly how comparable are China and Europe where air quality is concerned? ‘Europe is at a much more advanced stage’, states Blyth. ‘There are various major challenges that Europe found solutions to years ago. Examples include sulphur emissions, as well as the smog that used to affect our major cities. In addition to this, strict European regulations have led to a drastic drop in the emission of pollutants in a wide range of sectors. As a result, industry is no longer the largest polluter in European cities, whereas this is still a major issue in China. The Chinese government is aware that it will need to decide on various important aspects in the very short term. What measures should they take? And another, almost equally important, aspect is whether such action should be taken at national, regional or local level. All of this helps to explain the great interest from the Chinese delegations that have previously visited us.’