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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Nov 12, 2007

A clear-headed plan to protect the environment
By Chen Gang, For The Straits Times

ENVIRONMENTAL conservation has made it to the highest platform in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

President Hu Jintao's report to the 17th party congress floated the notion of 'conservation culture' for the first time, in the context of the need to 'build a comprehensive, well-off society'.
The high environmental cost accompanying economic growth tops all other problems, said President Hu, in a clear signal that such issues, once marginalised by senior decision-makers, have become a new policy focus.

Another catchphrase floated in President Hu's report was 'coordinated development', with reduction of energy consumption and protection of the environment cited as prerequisites.
As widely reported, the country's double-digit economic growth rates have led to serious environmental problems. As a result of soaring energy consumption and heavy dependence upon coal, China is now the world's second-largest greenhouse gas emitter. According to an estimate by the International Energy Agency, it will probably exceed the United States this year to become the world's worst polluter.

The high concentration of sulphur dioxide particulates in the air is endangering the health of millions of city dwellers. A World Bank study released earlier this year shows that air pollution causes as many as 350,000 to 400,000 premature deaths a year.

Water pollution is another headache. In May and June this year, algae in Taihu Lake, China's third-largest freshwater reservoir, rendered tap water undrinkable for half of the 2.3 million residents of Wuxi, a city in the eastern province of Jiangsu. The water crisis prompted a rush for bottled water by worried residents. Some colleges even suspended classes.

A similar crisis, this time caused by high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, occurred around Chaohu Lake in the east and Dianchi Lake in the south-west. And some cities in the North China Plain are facing severe water shortages as the water table sinks rapidly.

The aquifers in 90 per cent of Chinese cities are polluted while more than 75 per cent of urban river water is also considered unsuitable for drinking or fishing.

Tackling environmental issues is important not only for its own sake but also for the CCP's political survival. The experience of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union shows that growing environmental discontent often served as a catalyst for broader opposition to communist regimes. An accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine in 1986, for example, undermined faith in the Soviet authorities and helped accelerate the break-up of the Soviet Union.

In the southern Chinese city of Xiamen earlier this year, several hundred people staged a peaceful demonstration against the construction of a chemical plant for Tenglong Aromatic PX Co. Work at the site was suspended after residents sent about one million SMS messages in protest against the possible health dangers connected with the plant.

Protests about environmental issues have been growing by 30 per cent annually, according to Vice-Premier Zeng Peiyan. As a result, the country's leaders have become especially sensitive to such complaints. They also recognise that they have to overhaul the growth-first philosophy of the Deng Xiaoping era and embrace a new 'scientific development' approach.

In the 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-2010), the Chinese government established a number of ambitious environmental targets, including cutting energy consumption per unit of GDP by 20 per cent by 2010, reducing pollutant discharges by 10 per cent, decreasing water consumption per unit of industrial output by 30 per cent and raising the forestry coverage rate to 20 per cent of the total land area.

According to figures from the National Bureau of Statistics, energy consumption per 10,000 yuan (S$1,900) of GDP was 1.22 tonnes of coal equivalent in 2005 before the 11th Five-Year Plan began. But China managed to cut its energy consumption per unit of GDP by only 1.23 per cent in 2006, far below the annual 4 per cent target.

Reports from the State Environmental Protection Administration show that in the first quarter of this year, seven major water systems were slightly polluted, with no major change in water quality from the same period last year. The overall water quality of drinking-water sources dropped, with only 69.3 per cent reaching national standards, down five percentage points year on year.

With the Olympic Games next year, air quality in the capital Beijing is not getting any better while more than 1,000 new private cars hit the roads every day in the city.

China needs a national strategy that puts equal emphasis on economic development and environmental protection. This strategy should involve introducing incentives and disincentives to curb pollution and ecological destruction instead of relying on short-term administrative orders such as closing down polluting factories.

Institutional innovations such as fees for the discharge of pollutants, extra taxes on fuel and forcing factories to pay clean-up costs can do a better job. They are fairer and their effects can last longer.

More public participation is also necessary. In China's state-centric society, the ability of environmental NGOs and the media to reveal abuses or influence policy is still weak.

The introduction of the concept of 'conservation culture' marks the beginning of a serious effort to clean up the country's severely polluted environment. But it will be a long time before the balance between economic growth and a sustainable environment will be regained.

The writer is a research fellow at the East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore.

China needs a national strategy that... involves...incentives and disincentives to curb pollution and ecological destruction instead of relying on short-term administrative orders such as closing down polluting factories.

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