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Thursday, February 22, 2007

China to Hold Provincial Officials Accountable for Environmental Harm

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Starting in 2008, China will expand its recent Regional Permit Restriction to provinces nationwide in an effort to push them to achieve pollution reduction goals, the country’s top environmental authority, the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), announced on February 12.

The regional measure, adopted in January, suspends SEPA approval for all construction projects in regions that fail to achieve certain pollution reduction requirements, including conducting environmental impact assessments (EIAs) and building pollution prevention facilities. Shortly after the measure was instituted, SEPA blacklisted four municipalities and four power giants in the country for violating these rules.

The Regional Permit Restriction is the strictest administrative measure SEPA has taken in its 20-odd year history and was adopted after China failed to meet its overall environmental protection targets last year. SEPA director Zhou Shengxian revealed that the country discharged 25.9 million tons of sulfur dioxide and 14.3 million tons of organic compounds into the nation’s waterways in 2006, a 1.8 percent and 1.2 percent increase over 2005, respectively. Rates of discharge fell last year (by 11.3 percent and 4.4 percent, respectively), but the nation’s annual pollution reduction goals are far from being met, Zhou said.

The major factors to blame, Zhou believes, are the old production modes still existing in China’s economy and the unexpectedly fast GDP growth rate experienced last year. When the nation set its pollution control target of 10 percent reduction for its 11th five-year plan (2006–10), the estimated annual GDP growth was 7.5 percent. Yet the actual figure exceeded the projection by 3.2 percent and increased along with the pollution.

Zhou admits that current Chinese efforts to combat environmental pollution are insufficient. Over the past five years, as much as 47 percent of the investment pledged for this task became empty rhetoric. To make the situation worse, law enforcement and supervision has remained weak.

Zhou is confident that the remaining three years of the 11th five-year plan will see a gradual reduction in pollution.

At the Central Economic Work Conference in late 2006, a three-day annual event to set major economic strategy and policy for the year to come, China’s top decision makers set a 2 percent pollution reduction target for 2007. Zhou promised that SEPA would use harsh measures to guarantee attainment of this goal.

So far, the Regional Permit Restriction has been far from an empty threat. When one of the four cities blacklisted in January ignored the measure and continued its environmental offenses, SEPA intensified administrative punishment and invited widespread media exposure of the violator. This unusually hard stance for SEPA, which traditionally has been mocked as a “rubber stamp” agency for its weak authority, has astonished many local officials. Once SEPA upgrades the Restriction to the provincial level, officials there will likely suffer politically for their poor environmental records.

SEPA will continue to encourage industrial restructuring this year, with the aim of phasing out old and heavily polluting industrial facilities, production modes, and products, according to Zhou. By the end of 2007, the administration hopes to close all grass pulp production facilities with an annual capacity of less than 34,000 tons, all chemical pulp production lines with an annual capacity of less than 17,000 tons, and all diosgenin facilities (a chemical used to make hormones) with an annual capacity of less than 100 tons. It will also vigorously promote the adoption of advanced clean technologies in those industries.

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