The toxic smog that has descended on much of northern China this winter has had many astonishing side effects: pollution domes being built over sports facilities, fresh air sold in cans on the streets of Beijing, and fewer fireworks to celebrate Chinese New Year.

But what does the smog mean for China’s heavy industry? Even before “airpocalypse”, Beijing had announced proposals to cap emissions from high-polluting industries under the current five-year plan. This programme got a further boost this week, when the Ministry of Environmental Protection unveiled a new accelerated timetable for the changes.

There are six industries that are targeted: coal-fired power, steel, petrochemicals, cement, nonferrous metals and chemicals plants. Plants in these sectors that fall within 47 cities with air pollution problems will all be subject to emissions caps.

Under this week’s propsals, starting on March 1 of this year, all new applications to build thermal power plants and steel mills have to comply with the emissions limit. Meanwhile coal-fired power plants have until July 1, 2014 to upgrade their systems to meet new caps on smoke and dust emissions.

In steel, sinter plants will have until January 2015 to comply with limits on particulate emissions. More specific guidelines are also on the way for petrochemical plants and coal industrial boilers.

In its statement about the emission caps, China’s environment ministry pointed out that “the atmosphere is facing unprecedented pressure” due to industrialization, urbanisation, and rising rates of car ownership and coal consumption

. However Chinese scientists have warned that the caps will be difficult to enforce because of insufficient monitoring equipment and relatively low fines for non-compliance. Much of the smog around Beijing is from coal-fired stoves in homes and from vehicle exhaust, which are also hard to patrol.

China’s air pollution is not about to disappear overnight. But the worsening crisis over air pollution seems to have given fresh impetus for environmental authorities to up their game.

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