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In the Chinese capital, Beijing, people are often wearing masks to protect themselves from the city's stifling pollution. But air pollution is not confined to that city. It is a much broader problem. This week, the state-run newspaper, China Daily, said most of the country's big cities are, quote, barely suitable for living. More than three dozen other Chinese cities have air quality that's even worse than in Beijing. Researchers say the technical solutions to China's air pollution problem are fairly straightforward.
The real challenge, as NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Shanghai, is economics and politics.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Denise Mauzerall arrived in Beijing this year at a time that was both horrifying and illuminating. The capital was facing some of its worst pollution in recent memory. And Mauzerall, a Princeton environmental engineering professor, was passing through on her way to a university forum on the future of cities.
DENISE MAUZERALL: What was striking was I took the fast train from Beijing to Shanghai. And looking out the window for large sections of that trip, you couldn't see more than 20 feet.
LANGFITT: Did that surprise you?
MAUZERALL: That did surprise me. And it's really clear from that experience that this air pollution problem is on the scale of Eastern China. It's definitely not just a Beijing problem. It's a national problem and it needs a national solution.
TONG ZHU: Beijing has done a lot in the past to control its own air pollution.
LANGFITT: Tong Zhu is a top researcher on air pollution and teaches at both Princeton and Beijing universities. He says Beijing pushed polluting industry out of the city and replaced most coal burning heat with natural gas.
ZHU: The newest (unintelligible) emission(ph) standard is even higher than some European cities.
LANGFITT: But air knows no boundaries. Neighboring Hebei Province, which rings most of Beijing, has lower fuel standards. Poorer and far less developed, Hebei also has emphasized the sort of dirty factories Beijing got rid of.
ZHU: Hebei Province very much relies on all this heavy industry to drive its own economic development, industry that are not strictly controlled, so emissions of this industry contributes a significant amount of air pollutants in Beijing.
LANGFITT: The Communist Party is an authoritarian regime and in theory should be able to fix this.
Why can't the party just make this happen? It's a one-party state.
ZHU: Well, I think it's a very oversimplified term about political system in China. I think we have the impression that the central government controls everything.
LANGFITT: But in fact, Zhu says, regional governments have a big say over how they develop their economies. Industrial provinces aren't the only vested interest standing in the way of solving China's air problem. The country's powerful state-owned oil companies have resisted pressure to produce cleaner burning fuel for years.
VANCE WAGNER: Improving the fuel quality in China is very tricky politically.
LANGFITT: Vance Wagner is a senior researcher at the International Council on Clean Transportation, an independent research organization. He says most of China still uses high sulfur fuel, fuel that damages catalytic converters, which reduce tail pipe emissions.
To cut sulfur content, oil companies must buy expensive technology. At least $800 million worth, state media says. So when the government needed advice on fuel standards, guess who it turned to?
WAGNER: The experts that they ask are all people from China's major state-owned oil company, Sinopec and PetroChina. And so you can imagine that Sinopec and Petro China have a pretty clear conflict of interest in terms of how aggressively they want to push a new stringent fuel quality standard.
LANGFITT: This is how China's authoritarian capitalism - sometimes praised for its efficiency - can end up in political gridlock. The government, which sets fuel prices, is cautious about raising them and worries about a popular backlash. The oil companies, though highly profitable, still want to keep expenses as low as they can.
WAGNER: China's state-owned oil companies serve two masters. They are part of the government. They should feel the responsibility as the entire Chinese government does to improve people's livelihood and reduce air pollution. But they also serve the market and these are publicly traded companies. And so their responsibility is to produce fuel at the cheapest cost possible.
LANGFITT: January's dreadful air pollution led to a breakthrough of sorts. Sinopec chairman Fu Chengyu surprised people and took some responsibility for the problem. And, Vance Wagner says, the government set a dramatically lower national fuel standard that matched those in Europe.
WAGNER: Essentially removing all sulfur from the fuel. And it's widely regarded as the level to reduce 90 percent or even 99 percent of vehicle emissions.
LANGFITT: The bad news: The deadline for implementing that new standard is more than four and a half years away. And it isn't clear who will pay for all that clean technology. In the meantime, vehicle emissions will continue to grow. This year, China's annual auto sales could for the first time pass the 20 million mark.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.