Watchdog urges public to back pollution battle

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 December, 2006, 12:00am

Sepa's deputy wants more support to protect environment

Growing public awareness of the pollution problem has enabled the mainland's environmental watchdog to stand up to powerful interest groups and local authorities in the battle to protect the environment, according to a senior official.

But Pan Yue , deputy director of the State Environmental Protection Administration (Sepa), said the public had yet to become fully involved in the campaign to find a solution to China's environmental woes.

'In the face of the complicated and arduous environmental protection work, it is impossible to rely on environmental authorities alone,' Mr Pan said. 'The only way to break the deadlock is to enlist the power of the public.'

In March, the mainland introduced a regulation aimed at giving the public a greater say in the approval process for industrial projects. Though provisional, the regulation - which sets out ways to solicit public opinion, including public surveys and hearings - has already had an impact, according to Mr Pan.

'Since the implementation of the regulation, Sepa has rejected 43 projects involving a total investment of more than 160 billion yuan, on the grounds that the public had not been invited to participate in environmental impact assessments,' he said.

Sepa has launched a series of unprecedented regulatory actions in the past two years, calling a halt to dozens of big industrial projects for their failure to observe the environmental impact assessment law. But the law, which has many obvious defects, has not been well-received by development-minded local officials and powerful interest groups.

Mr Pan said the environmental impact reports, while mandatory in the process of approving industrial projects, were still not considered binding and were often merely conducted for show.

And the environmental watchdog has not been given enough power to have a say when the central government hands down final decisions.

Complaints about Sepa's toothlessness have long been cited by critics as a sign that Sepa cares more about expanding its power within the bureaucracy than its responsibility in fighting pollution.

Mr Pan admitted that the much talked-about public participation still remained a distant dream. 'We still need to work out a tangible mechanism to allow public involvement.'

Sepa is considering a proposal to give the public a greater role in environmental issues concerning the interests of the people.

Mr Pan urged the authorities to release information about the environment and to do everything possible to protect the people's access to vital information and their right to express an opinion on environmental issues.

But the mainland public had yet to break away from an over-reliance on the government and show a willingness to participate in environmental protection, he said.

Despite severe environmental degradation, Mr Pan said he remained upbeat amid intense warnings of a looming crisis. 'I have firm confidence in an [approaching] spring in China's environmental protection work.'

The growing awareness of public involvement, among citizens, the media and social groups, was a sign that 'a modern civic society is taking shape', he added. But he is also sober-minded and shares the public's growing concern over the extent of the pollution problem.

He recently said environmental damage cost the mainland about 8 to 13 per cent of national GDP each year, 'which means that the mainland has lost almost everything it has gained since the late 1970s due to pollution'.

'Much remains to be done in the face of the severe environmental situation - cleanup efforts are involved in a race against continuing damage and the scientific perspective on development is involved in a race against the conventional approach focusing on GDP growth.'

Mr Pan is a fervent supporter of the environmental impact assessment law and Sepa's newly gained power, which has been constantly challenged by the mainland's powerful political and business interest groups.