Thursday, May 10, 2007

China and environmental accidents

Excellent post from ChinaDialogue on the level of environmental accidents in China and the relative weakness of the environmental lobby in the face of strong opposition from business. It is always useful to put these things in context.

Click on the link to read the full article.

Weathering the storm
Tang Hao
May 10, 2007
China’s State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) has launched three major crackdowns known as “environmental storms” in the past three years. The first one, in the early part of 2005 halted 30 unapproved construction projects, and 56 projects were not approved in 2006. Regional permit restrictions were used to block four major energy projects this year; 82 other projects have also been criticised for falling foul of the rules on environmental impact assessments. But despite the continued crackdowns, China has faced more and more environmental problems. Over the same period, the number of environmental disasters has increased, with one pollution incident occurring every two days on average. Public complaints about environmental concerns have increased 30% and central leadership statements on the subject have increased 52%. Moreover, pollution emissions continued to rise in 2006. SEPA's high hopes for the success of the environmental storms have not been realised.

How can this be the case, with rising concerns from the public and the media, not to mention SEPA’s repeated statements? Why is it so hard to put effective measures in place – and make local governments and businesses fall into line? Understanding the answers to these questions requires taking a broader view, which reveals the rise of an anti-environmental interest group – of which local governments are only one part – who want to take an active role in environmental decision-making. And at the same time, this wider view exposes a void at the heart of China's environmental movement.

Further on in the article comes the following quote. The role of transnational corporations in a complex one but in general transnational corporations are generally perceived as better employers than domestic employers so in one sense things may be considerably worse if there was no foreign involvment.
Anti-environmental interests are also represented by business. Inadequate legal enforcement in energy-saving and environmental protection allows domestic firms to profit from polluting their environment, while transnational companies relocate their waste and polluting industries to China. Local media, beholden to the rich and powerful, fail to speak out. Special interest groups have thus formed an unspoken alliance against the environment.


Another article (from PlanetArk) on China's fight against pollution and the internal corruption of local officials. It is reassuring to see just how much importance China is placing on at least attempting to clean up or control pollution. In some respects this is easier in China than in a free market.

China Says to Automate Monitoring of Big Polluters

BEIJING - China plans to set up an automated system to monitor big polluters by 2008, the official Xinhua news agency said on Thursday, underscoring government efforts to clean up the country's dirty air and water.

These are the telling quotes and sums up the problem - this is what economists find hard to get a handle on.
Many Chinese factories, smelters and power plants have bought equipment to minimise pollution from smokestacks, but are notorious for turning off the equipment as soon as government inspectors leave their gates.

Scrubbers and other equipment can be expensive to operate, or can reduce the energy efficiency of a plant, tempting owners to flout the rules.

Understaffed environmental bureaux lack the manpower or the clout to enforce compliance, since they often report to local governments that own stakes in local industry.

Finally, it is clear much remains to be done:
Last year, China failed to meet its target of a 2 percent reduction in the emission of pollutants. Sulphur dioxide emissions, which can cause acid rain, increased by 463,000 tonnes in China, 1.8 percent higher than the previous year, and chemical oxygen demand increased by 1.2 percent, SEPA said.


Jason Welker said...

China's crackdown on polluters is similar to its crackdown on corruption. The facade it puts up for the outside world to see is only meant to distract us from the reality within China. Its endless levels of bureaucracy limit the amount of control Beijing actually has on the ground in the provinces. Beijing will issue directives, they'll be passed down through countless agencies and ministries, and by the time they're to be implemented corrupt low level officials have assured that nothing will actually be done. The "storms" are only for show, so the outside world believe something's being done.

This trend occurs not just in environmental issues, but humans rights as well. Since 1994 Beijing's taken a strong stance against excessive taxation of peasants, but since 1994 the tax burden on peasants has only increased due to the ability of low level cadres to extort through violence and intimidation taxes far beyond the legal 5% placed on peasant farmers. This lack of control on behalf of Beijing over its provincial, county, township and village cadres assures that the official Party policy will be ignored as long as there's money to be made by corrupt local officials!

ChinaEconomist said...

Thanks for the excellent comment. That is also my reading of the situation. If you have any links to papers where this sort of discussion takes place more formally I would be very interested.