Green move a step in the right direction

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 February, 2008, 12:00am

The enshrinement of the concept of 'scientific development' in the Communist Party's constitution might be expected to help level the playing field for the mainland's environmental watchdogs. But they revealed this week just how much official mindsets have to change before the goal of sustainable development is no longer an uphill battle. The 'green credit' policy, an initiative hailed as a breakthrough only last July, has already foundered on resistance from local governments and financial institutions. Introduced by the State Environmental Protection Administration (Sepa) with the backing of the People's Bank of China and the national banking regulator, the policy aims to stop banks from lending to big polluters. It was Beijing's first attempt to use economic leverage to combat pollution and promote energy efficiency. But Sepa deputy chief Pan Yue says local governments with a short-term view of economic development continue to protect profitable, but energy-intensive, high-polluting industries.

China is not the first country to learn that it takes more than the right policies and guidelines to ensure protection of the environment from development. Local officials must be held accountable for enforcing environmental regulations, including transparent impact assessments and stiff penalties against polluters.

Following a number of environmental catastrophes such as chemical pollution of rivers and lakes, Sepa has assumed a higher enforcement profile, naming and shaming violators and fining thousands of companies. Unlike Sepa, however, the top watchdogs in places with better environment records generally enjoy full ministry status at cabinet level. That helps give environmental protection clout and credibility. The mainland has yet to strike such a balance in policy- and decision-making. An opportunity to put that right arises at next month's annual plenary session of the National People's Congress, with a proposal to merge Sepa and the Ministry of Construction into a super ministry to focus on the environment. That would be a start on raising national awareness that the mainland cannot tolerate development at the cost of the environment.