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Sheng Sanhua, Li Zuojun: Making Pollution Prevention a Top Priority


Ecological efforts have been in full swing in China. However, we are now forced to choose between prevention in advance and treatment after pollution. Generally speaking, prevention is more effective than treatment, and China should shift work focus from treatment to prevention.

Prevention is more effective than treatment

Pollution prevention seeks to control the production of pollutants, while pollution treatment seeks to adopt measures to alleviate pollution after pollutants have already been produced. The former requires control in advance while the latter requires treatment afterwards. Both have their functions and range of applications, but we should attach more importance to pollution prevention as it has the following advantages.

Prevention is easier to accept. For companies, preventive measures, especially the wide use of pollution prevention technologies, can cut the amount of pollutants and bring about huge comprehensive benefits, such as reducing companies' input of resources and energy, slashing production cost, increasing output and added value, and improving company reputation. This is why some companies will innovate their pollution prevention technologies even without government policy incentives. Pollution treatment will not generate the abovementioned benefits, but will cause continuous expenses in treatment equipment.

Prevention has lower social cost but yields more social benefits. Both prevention and treatment incur costs. Prevention's cost is often invisible, while treatment entails visible cost. In addition, it costs more to supervise treatment than to supervise prevention. The ecological cost from pollution treatment is far beyond our imagination. Treatment brings about almost nothing useful to society except some jobs. Prevention, on the contrary, will help save resources, cut energy consumption and reduce social contradictions. These things are significant for China to alleviate its energy shortage and realize sustainable development.

China has already made some progress in pollution prevention, creating a good foundation. As a latecomer compared with developed countries like the US and Japan, China's pollution prevention is in the primary stage and has a long way to go. Pollution prevention has been as or even more effective as costly pollution treatments. For example, technological progress in pollution prevention has helped Chinese cities cut production of sulfur dioxide by 1.84 trillion tons from 2003 to 2012, 700 million tons more than that cut by pollution treatment during the same period. Compared with the US and Japan, there is much room for technological progress in this aspect. The results will be better if there are favorable policies for pollution prevention.

Pollution prevention methods

Generally speaking, there are four basic ways to approach pollution prevention: institutional innovation, structural adjustment, technological progress and scale control. Different regions can choose their own solution based on their actual conditions (primarily the stage of industrial development).

Institutional innovation is the fundamental way to execute pollution prevention as it affects all the other three. In a broad sense, institutional innovation includes innovation in culture, law, organization and management. Institutional innovation can be done in the following way. It should start with cultural innovation so as to build and form public awareness of pollution prevention that guides behavior. Legal innovation should be the core, with the goal to build a sound prevention-related law and regulation system. Organization innovation should be the means to look for an effective combination of government and market. Efforts should be made to ensure that the market plays its decisive role while the government does what it is supposed to do. Innovation in the management system should serve as a tool, with the negative list management system, company clean production system, environmental protection certification system and system of official performance all playing their roles in pollution prevention.

Structural adjustment is a basic method that alleviates pollution through updating industrial structure, energy structure and regional structure. It can prevent pollution formation by adjusting the conditions of energy production and consumption, industry entry thresholds and urban construction standards.

Specifically speaking, adjustments can be made in three aspects. First, adjustment in industrial structure, like transforming the secondary industry into a modern service industry; transforming heavy and chemical industries into deep processing industries; and transforming industries with high energy use, pollution and emissions into those with low energy, pollution and emissions. Second, energy structure adjustment needs to be improved, like shifting energy use from fossil fuels to renewable energy such as solar, hydro, wind, tidal, biological and geothermal power. Third, regional adjustment can be made, like promoting new-type urbanization, optimizing the population structure and improving the spatial layout.

Technological progress of pollution prevention is the key. Preventive technology refers to knowledge and techniques that can reduce or even eliminate pollutants and waste when the output remains unchanged. Such technology includes product substitution, improvement in production techniques or operational approach, recycling of materials, and new-energy technology and new material technology. The highlight of technological progress is to prevent polluting products from being used in production or consumption by stipulating technical standards. Preventive technology has huge potential as it can generate great comprehensive benefits for enterprises and is not subject to the process of industrialization.

Scale control is another option. For example, the scale of energy consumption and the size of industrial output can be controlled. China remains a developing country and economic growth is among its major goals, so it is not an appropriate time to curb the size of economic output. However, controlling the total quantity of energy consumption is a viable option for the country to break the bottleneck of resource and energy use, transform the mode of economic development and realize sustainable development. So it is necessary to make it a state strategy to limit the amount of the use of locally-scarce resources and energy. Also, controlling total energy consumption can cut the amount of pollutants from the source.

The authors are Sheng Sanhua at the college of economics and management at China Three Gorges University and Li Zuojun at the Research Institute for Resource and Environment Policies at the Development Research Center of the State Council (DRC).

The article appeared on page 7 of Guangming Daily on Jan 14, 2015.