China Environmental News Digest

Daily updated Environmental news related to China

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Corruption is linked to pollution in China

International Herald Tribune By David Lague International Herald Tribune MONDAY, AUGUST 21, 2006 BEIJING China has blamed fraud in project approvals and failure to apply emission control measures for rising pollution, state media reported Monday, as the authorities grapple with the environmental impact of headlong economic growth. The director of the State Environmental Protection Administration, Zhou Shengxian, said pollution increased in 17 provinces in the six months to June despite a government pledge to cut emissions by 2 percent this year, the official Xinhua news agency reported. China's senior environmental official also said a government investigation into pollution control approvals for construction projects worth more than $12.5 million had found violations in almost 40 percent of cases, according to the report. "It is clear the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection is coming to a head," Zhou was quoted as saying. "Fraud in project approval was prominent with many projects passing their environmental assessment without fulfilling the necessary criteria." The Chinese economy expanded 11.3 percent in the second quarter, its fastest pace in a decade according to official statistics, as factories continued to churn out goods for export and investment surged in fixed assets such as power plants, steel mills, roads, shopping malls and apartment buildings. Along with fears that the economy may be in danger of overheating, the authorities are clearly worried that widespread pollution poses a threat to long-term prosperity. Social stability could also be at risk as anger grows over the threat to public health from widespread industrial contamination and accidental discharges of chemicals and fuel. The authorities are also under pressure to clean up Beijing's notoriously polluted air before the city plays host at the 2008 Olympic Games. Zhou said local governments were responsible for controlling emissions and warned that officials failing to protect the environment would "pay the price," the Xinhua report said. Environmental experts agree that fraud and failure to enforce the law is a major contributor to rising pollution levels. "This is definitely a huge problem," said Wen Bo, China representative for the California-based environmental group, Pacific Environment. "Some of the less economically advanced regions in China have been actively working to attract investment from overseas and other parts of China. But, they don't have huge advantages except cheap labor and loose environmental standards." Sulfur dioxide emissions, mostly from burning coal, increased 5.8 percent in the first six months compared with the same period in 2005, the Xinhua report said. China, which burns more than two billion metric tons of coal a year to produce about 80 per cent of its electricity, leads the world in emissions of sulfur dioxide, which causes acid rain. Discharges of sulfur dioxide from power plants and industry increased by 27 percent in the five years to 2005 to reach 25.5 million metric tons according to official figures. Zhou said that in some counties, only 30 percent of projects had been checked for compliance with pollution controls before they were granted construction licenses, Xinhua reported. And, almost half of the companies, including those that passed environmental appraisals, failed to carry out required emission control measures. The Chinese authorities have recently announced a flurry of measures aimed at curbing pollution as evidence mounts that growth has come at the cost of widespread environmental degradation. While more than three decades of expansion has delivered prosperity to hundreds of millions of Chinese, the country now has some of the world's most polluted air, water and soil. China has 16 of the world's 20 cities with the most polluted air, according to the Worldwatch Institute, based in Washington. Pollution is also compounding the country's acute water shortage. According to reports in the official media, 90 percent of waterways that flow through China's cities and 75 percent of lakes are contaminated. Waste and emissions from industry and agricultural waste also threaten large tracts of farmland. On July 18, official media reported that the government planned to spend $175 billion on environmental protection over the next five years. The State Environmental Protection Administration announced last week that it would set tougher standards for industries that pollute, with regulations drawn up or updated to include up to 1,400 environmental protection criteria. The environmental watchdog also announced Friday that it would start the country's biggest environmental research project aimed at fighting water pollution. The government has set up two committees of experts, some from outside the bureaucracy, to advise policy makers on environmental protection. Some analysts speculate that China's environmental agencies, which are normally far less influential than the powerful economic and industrial ministries, have become more assertive as fears mount over the danger from economic overheating. "Maybe the environmental agencies see this as a particularly good moment to raise these issues," said Lu Yiyi, an associate fellow with Chatham House, a London-based international affairs institute, in an interview in Beijing. "I sense that the environmental agencies feel they don't have enough power and authority." Environmental experts believe that in most areas, China has ample laws and regulations to protect the environment compared with the best international standards. However, these laws are often poorly and erratically enforced. Even when the law is enforced to stop polluting industries and factories, environmental activists complain there are sometimes unintended benefits for those in breach. They note that in more developed coastal regions of China, factories are sometimes forced to shut down because they fail to meet emission standards. "They sell their old location to a real estate developer and relocate to a rural area where there is no adequate enforcement of environmental controls," said Wen of Pacific Environment. "There they can easily discharge their pollutants without proper treatment."

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