China Passes New Pollution Law As Smog Chokes Cities

After a week in which smog choked the country, enveloping 24 major cities and forcing schools and businesses to shut down, the Chinese government passed a law that levies taxes on pollution -- but ignores carbon dioxide.

China's parliament passed the law on Dec. 25, making it the first time the country has enacted legislation to tax polluters as it struggles with all-enveloping smog.

Under the law, the Chinese government will begin taxing polluters in 2018, Reuters reports. It works out to about 17 cents per "unit" of air and water pollution. The law also allows the government to tax coal waste, hazardous waste and industrial noise pollution.

"The core purpose [of the policy] isn't to increase taxes, but is to improve the system, and encourage enterprises to reduce emissions -- the more they emit the more they will pay, and the less they emit the less they will pay," Minister of Environmental Protection Chen Jining said.

But critics weren't happy with the new law, even as it was being passed, accusing the Chinese government of building in exemptions, failing to address conflicts of interest that could help some polluters avoid taxes and ignoring carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas associated with climate change.

Others said the fines aren't high enough to deter violators. Despite the new law, it's still cheaper for industrial companies to pay the pollution fines rather than pay to refit their factories with equipment to reduce emissions, Jia Kang of the Ministry of Finance's Institute of Fiscal Science said earlier in 2016, according to Reuters.

The law comes as China experiences one of its worst smog alerts in history. The smog has choked around two dozen cities, with levels of "small breathable particles" reaching 50 times the amount the World Health Organization says is acceptable, the Express reported.

The "Airpocalypse," as the Chinese media is calling it, covered almost 4 million square miles -- about the same area of land as the continental U.S.

Photos showed the tops of skyscrapers hidden by thick curls of haze, with pedestrians wearing masks as they walk through the ground-level smog. One photo published by Reuters showed a masked figure walking on a bridge, almost appearing to walk on thin air as the structure was swallowed by the fog of pollution as it stretched into the distance.

In the port city of Tianjin, southeast of Beijing, authorities closed down some highways, increased public transportation and enacted a system where cars could be used only on alternate days, depending on whether their license plates ended in even or odd numbers, CNN reported.

Across the country, hundreds of flights were delayed or canceled during the third week of December because the smog impacted visibility so severely that pilots were unable to land aircraft. The smog was also taking its toll on health, with hospitals reporting a large uptick in the number of people admitted for problems related to asthma and other respiratory ailments, according to USA Today.

And while the Chinese government was trying to take action to combat smog, it was simultaneously denying that the unprecedented levels were man-made. In some provinces, officials listed the smog as "meteorological disasters," prompting scientists to criticize the government, reports South China Morning Post.

"Smog ... is mainly caused by human activity," said Zhang Zitai, a Fudan University professor quoted by USA Today. "Thus the plan to list it as a meteorological disaster not only goes against science, it will also create an excuse for polluters to escape their culpability."

Sources: Reuters, USA Today, CNN, South China Morning Post, Express/ Photo credit: Fredrick Rubensson/Wikimedia Commons

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