Sitting against a parapet in front of his brick house, Mr. Hu is sunbathing. This old peasant with a weathered face remembers the days when the sky was black, even in broad daylight. “There was so much soot in the air that you couldn’t hang the laundry outside. “ In question, the factory of Baotai Steel, a giant of the steel industry, not far from there, and the hundreds of steelworks installed north of the city of Tangshan, the “capital of steel”, located 150 km to east of Beijing.
In 2020, the city provided 14% of Chinese production, while the country produces 57% of global steel. This autumn afternoon, the sky is veiled by a thin layer of pollution. The concentration of microparticles smaller than 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5) is 187 per cubic meter, an “extremely harmful” level, according to the Air Quality Index website (the World Health Organization considers a healthy rate of less than 20), but far from the records of 1,000, regularly achieved five years ago. Today, the air in Tangshan is a little more breathable. « Baotai closed a year ago. But since then the neighborhood is dead », Mr. Hu sighs.
Reducing pollutant emissions in Tangshan has been a priority for at least eight years. Indeed, the grayness which prevails there also poisons the air of Beijing and the whole region. To come out of the ranking of the most polluted cities in China, Tangshan is imposing technological upgrades, closing the oldest factories, moving those with potential. But these measures have devastated entire areas: in Fengtai, one of the most industrial districts, there are no longer abandoned factories, restaurants or closed garages.
Behind Tangshan, the entire national development model – long based on heavy industry, exports and construction – is called into question by the energy transition. While China is responsible for 27% of global carbon dioxide emissions (CO2), its efforts are scrutinized at COP26, which is being held in Glasgow (Scotland), until November 12. Just before the climate conference, Beijing confirmed its commitments announced in previous years: to reach the peak of its CO emissions2 by 2030, and carbon neutrality by 2060. Insufficient for NGOs, who would like to see the planet’s biggest polluter start reducing its emissions sooner.
“Efforts to reduce overcapacity”
Tangshan gives an idea of the scale of the challenge that this transition represents for the Middle Empire. With the approach of winter, the most polluted season in China due to heating needs, many factories in the city have had to suspend their activity. « These are the orders of the environment office. When the pollution is high for a few days, we must close ”, explains a guard at the entrance to Shengda Steel, which manufactures metal joists. « It’s like that every month. We can only shoot a fortnight to break everything. And steelworkers only earn 3,000 yuan [un peu plus de 400 euros] per month, compared to 6,000 to 8,000 previously », Explains the fifty-year-old who floats in his blue uniform, and prefers not to give his name.
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In Tangshan, symbol of China’s difficult energy transition