The world's biggest polluter

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 June, 2007, 12:00am

The mainland's drive to reduce pollution and energy waste has reached a make or break' point this year. A senior planning official warned that energy-intensive and heavily polluting industries are dominating economic growth.

The remarks by Xie Zhenhua , deputy director of the National Development and Reform Commission in charge of energy efficiency and emission control, came after a report from the Netherlands this week said the mainland had overtaken the US for the first time as the world's top producer of greenhouse gases.

'The country faces a quite severe situation in cutting both energy use and pollutant emissions at the moment,' he said.

'If it cannot be reversed in time, [the mainland] will not only fail to meet its annual targets for energy savings and pollution control, but can hardly achieve the targets set in the 11th five-year plan.'

Mr Xie is the former chief of the State Environmental Protection Administration. He was sacked over a massive pollution disaster on the Songhua River in 2005.

He said industries such as cement, steel, chemical products and non-ferrous metal showed signs of acceleration.

He added that exports of energy-intensive products had grown faster than those of other industrial goods.

Beijing has announced plans to slash tax rebates on exports of 2,800 types of products from next month, including cement and chemical goods, and has urged local governments to stop offering tax incentives to energy-intensive industries.

Mr Xie lashed out at local authorities for disobeying central government orders to cool the economy and siding with industrial polluters.

'Local protectionism has been the main factor hindering law enforcement from saving energy and protecting the environment,' he said.

Mr Xie said reducing energy use and pollution would depend on these same local governments, especially those in underdeveloped regions which often pin their poverty-reduction hopes on industries that were high polluters. He offered no bold measures to make local officials more accountable, but said public participation and media supervision would be necessary to help the national authorities win the campaign.

The mainland failed to meet targets set by Premier Wen Jiabao to reduce energy consumption by

4 per cent and emissions of pollutants by 2 per cent last year.

Mr Xie appeared much more cautious than State Environmental Protection Administration deputy director Zhang Lijun , who predicted earlier that total discharges of pollutants would fall this year.

'It will take a while for policies and measures to have effect given the outstanding problems and grim situation in the first half of the year,' he said.

'It is likely we will see results by the end of the year because growth has begun to slow this month.'

The capital's notorious air pollution has worsened dramatically this month, local environmental authorities said.

This has dampened hopes of a successful clean-up campaign ahead of next year's Olympic Games.

Beijing saw only eight days with clear skies in the first 21 days of the month, nine fewer than last June, the city's Environmental Protection Bureau said.

After days of choking smog over the past few weeks, the reading of particulate matter - the main pollutant - reached the alarming level of 202 micrograms per cubic metre on Tuesday, the worst reading this year.

The national standard on air quality states that under 100 micrograms is generally considered acceptable for residential areas.

'We've been feeling stressed because of the risks of missing this year's pollution-control target, but so far we have no effective measures,' bureau official Wang Chunlin said.

Mr Wang blamed the burning of large quantities of wheat straw by farmers in Hebei , Henan , Shanxi , Shandong and Tianjin for the worst pollution in the capital in the past seven years.

The pollution has choked millions of residents in the capital, and Premier Wen Jiabao has voiced his concern over the capital's expensive but ineffective clean-up. The city has invested more than 120 billion yuan in the campaign over the past decade.

The central government has enlisted the support of the capital's neighbours in its race to improve air quality and honour its commitment to a green Olympics in August next year amid growing international concern.

Although agricultural and environmental authorities have issued another ban on straw-burning across the country, a co-ordination and enforcement mechanism is yet to be established among provincial-level authorities to prevent similar pollution, Mr Wang said.

To further aggravate Beijing's problems with pollution, air quality in nearby provinces, which are among the most polluted regions on the mainland, has continued to worsen, according to the latest survey by the country's top environmental watchdog.

Shanxi topped the national pollution list compiled by State Environmental Protection Administration and released this week.

Hebei and Inner Mongolia were also high on the list because of their poor performance in controlling both particulate matter and sulphur dioxide.

These are edited versions of articles by Shi Jiangtao that appeared in the South China Morning Post on June 23.

State Environmental Protection Administration report

Only 38 per cent of 585 cities surveyed last year registered air quality that reached national health standards, down from about 45 per cent in a 2005 study

200 of the cities surveyed, or more than one-third, still lacked a centralised sewage management system and 187 cities had no garbage disposal plants

The overall level of healthy water also slipped by 7.24 percentage points

A new report by the US National Bureau of Economic Research forecasts that by 2040, the mainland's economy will be twice that of the US, and twice that of the core European Union countries and Japan put together.

The country will also be rich, with a per capita income of US$85,000 in year (at rates from the year 2000).

To realise that forecast, China would have to maintain an 8.3 per cent annual growth rate from 2000 to 2040.


'Fast expansion of high-energy consumption and heavily polluting industries weighs heavily against us'

- Xie Zhenhua, deputy director of the National Development and Reform Commission

'People who are affected by pollution and people who don't want to give in should take part in the drive to promote environmental protection. They should play a role in the enforcement of the law and become its main driving force'

- Ma Jun, director of the Beijing-based, non-government Institute of Public and Environment Affairs

'Hong Kong has a large carbon footprint in terms of what we produce beyond our borders, what we consume and what we generate locally. We must also wake up to the opportunities for Hong Kong to profit as the world seeks to lower its carbon output'

- Christine Loh Kung-wai, chief executive of the think-tank Civic Exchange

Web links

Satellite maps showing pollution over China

Chinese environmental activist on climate change

Response to China pollution complaints from Shanghai Daily


Who is the world's top producer of greenhouse gasses?


Why has China's pollution increased so dramatically?

Is it fair for the Western world to point a critical finger at China?

What can be done to curb pollution in China?

Going downhill

In the five years between 2000-05, increases in sulfur dioxide emissions by the mainland's coal-fired power plants outpaced rises in their power capacity and coal consumption

2000 2005

Coal-fired power capacity (kWh) 214m 391m

Coal consumption (tonnes) 551m 1b

Sulfur dioxide emissions (tonnes) 7.25m 15.2m

How desulfurisation works

In a flue gas desulfurisation system, waste gases are scrubbed with a chemical absorbent such as limestone to remove sulfur dioxide. The limestone-gypsum process involves mixing limesotne and water with the flue gases to produce a slurry which absorbs sulfur dioxide. The slurry is then oxidised to gypsum (calcium sulfate)

Sources: BBC, SEPA