China is planning to set 'red lines' on heavy industry that could intensify social unrest

Photo: Li/Getty Images.

Chinese regional governments will set “red lines” on energy and water use and on land devoted to industrial development in order to rein in ecological damage and other costs, according to the South China Morning Post.

Officials will also put caps on coal use, in what Dai Yande, deputy director at the National Development and Reform Commission’s Energy Research Institute, said was an effort to limit “energy use because the existing pricing system could not reflect the true ecological costs of consumption.”

Regions of the country facing severe air-pollution problems, like the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei area, will be required to put in place specific targets, “including the percentage of coal use in total energy consumption,” according to a document released by Chinese government ministries.

Areas with scarce water supplies and that have over-extracted water will also be required to put limits on the use of that resource. This includes northern provinces like Hebei that are reliant on groundwater use to power industrial and agricultural sectors.

Moreover, roughly two-thirds of cities on the Chinese mainland face water shortages, according to data from the Ministry of Water Resources, cited by the South China Morning Post.

“And each year, the country’s supplies of water fall more than 50 billion cubic metres short of its needs,” the Post notes. “All provinces will also have to set ‘environmental red lines’ to guard against further deterioration in the quality of the air, water and soil.”

China has taken pains to restrict heavy industry and energy use, particularly of coal, for both environmental and economic reasons.

Reuters has reported that the government intends to lay off five million to six million state workers over the next two to three years in an effort to “curb industrial overcapacity and pollution.”

But efforts to reintegrate those laborers into the workforce may falter if the economies of China’s northern provinces — where heavy industry and coal production are centered — don’t improve.

“The opportunities for middle-aged or even elderly former coal miners and steel plant workers are more limited in a province where the economy really has slowed to virtually zero,” Geoffrey Crothall of the nonprofit China Labour Bulletin, which has tracked a significant spike in labour strikes in China over the previous six months, told the Associated Press in April.

Amid an economic slowdown and severe environmental issues in some of the country’s major cities, reining in heavy industry is likely seen as an unavoidable choice for Chinese policymakers.

But measures to wind down some industrial activity, steelmaking and coal production in particular, could pose a threat to the social cohesion that has been important to the country’s economic advancement and development.

Further restrictions on energy use, and on the amount of water available for consumption, could exacerbate social tensions that have boiled over into protests already this year.

“I have a daughter,” one man, facing unemployment after a state-run steel firm halted work, told AFP earlier this year, asking to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals. “I’m the main breadwinner in the family. What can I do in the future?”

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