TAIYUAN, China — The residents of Taiyuan measure their air pollution in dirty clothes.

In years past, when China’s boom created endless demand for this area’s coal, iron and steel, a white shirt stayed fresh only a few hours, turning black around the collar and sleeves before day’s end. When the government shut down hundreds of factories in and around Taiyuan ahead of the Olympics last year, clean shirts began to last two days. Now, six months into an economic slowdown that has snuffed demand for power and metals from China’s furnace, a man’s suit can stay crisp for three days without laundering.

“I don’t need to do so much laundry these days,” said Zhao Jihong, a 25-year-old environmentalist who works to encourage local companies to adopt pollution controls.

If there is a bright spot amid the global economic slump for China, it may be in the air — and in the water and soil. Dramatically slowed production in recent months has meant less pollution. In notoriously filthy places like Taiyuan, the capital of China’s coal country, that means more relatively blue skies and healthier breathing.

Grayish-brown smog still hangs in the air over Taiyuan, which has consistently ranked among the world’s most polluted cities. Yet even with the acrid smell and black traces of coal dust all around, its residents maintain things have improved immensely.

“The air has definitely been cleaner the past six months than it was six months before that,” said Wang Lei, a worker at Taiyuan’s largest stainless steel factory, where production has been scaled back and managerial salaries reduced by 20 percent this year.

The sharp decline in demand for power, concrete, steel and iron started to show roughly six months ago in Shanxi province, which holds about one-third of China’s coal deposits. Just before that, the Olympics in Beijing — 250 miles east of here — cleared the air with mass factory closures, providing some of the first tangible relief from severe air pollution in years. When the Olympics ended in August, scores of small coke (a fuel made by heating coal) and concrete factories failed to reopen, while larger operations scaled back production as demand waned.

In one sense, the economic slowdown has done swiftly what China’s environmental regulators were unable to do for years: shut down the low-budget operations that continually flouted anti-pollution laws and helped create ever-worsening air, water and soil pollution in places like Shanxi. Those heavily polluting factories helped make China, with its heavy dependence on coal, the world’s leading producer of climate change-causing carbon emissions.

Small, inefficient factories — the ones that tended most to ignore environmental laws — were the first driven out of business by the economic slump, according to Wang Wenping of the Taiyuan Iron and Steel Chamber of Commerce.

“We can see the financial crisis as an opportunity to close the small, non-competitive factories,” Wang said.

But while reduced demand for power and building material have cleaned up Taiyuan and other places, this is by no means a long-term solution to China’s pollution problems, experts say. With the government planning to spend $586 billion dollars over two years to stimulate demand and economic growth, heavily polluting factories might start up again at any time. Factories looking to save might skip required pollution controls, and, as has often been the case in years past, simply fail to turn on the filters. There is potential for even worse pollution than before.

Zhang Jianyu of Environmental Defense in Beijing said the outlook is uncertain.

“I think it really depends. Everything comes out pretty nicely on paper, but the key thing is in the individual players,” said Zhang. “The psychological factors are going to be really important.”

The government has promised to monitor pollution controls as the stimulus plan gets underway. Still, there’s no guarantee that Taiyuan and other cities won’t be back to where they were a year ago with pollution. Zhao, the young environmentalist in Taiyuan, is realistic about the future.

“Heavy industries will gradually move away from the city and improve, but it will take generations to really change everything,” he said. “Pollution cannot be avoided in Taiyuan.” 

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