Slowdown makes it more difficult to hit green targets
Shi Jiangtao in Beijing
President Hu Jintao's warning that many local authorities had failed to follow the sustainable growth philosophy and sacrificed the environment for short-term economic gains comes at a critical moment for the mainland.
Many conservationists are worried that the economic slowdown will make it even more difficult for the mainland to meet this year's environmental protection targets.
When Beijing unveiled its aggressive 4 trillion yuan (HK$4.55 trillion) stimulus package in November, leaders went out of their way to give reassurances it would not be at the expense of the battered environment.
Top government officials, including Premier Wen Jiabao, said the package would be good news for the financially strained environmental protection sector, with 350 billion yuan earmarked for environmental projects in the next year. In addition, Environmental Protection Minister Zhou Shengxian pledged to raise another 1 trillion yuan in the next three years to support renewable energy and pollution treatment.
However, there are growing concerns over whether Beijing will make the most of this window of opportunity, as it generally allows economic concerns to overrule anything else and has such a poor track record on the environment.
Analysts said that while authorities promised that energy-intensive and polluting industries would not benefit from the stimulus package, the opposite might actually be true.
Much of the new spending will be on energy production and infrastructure projects, such as nuclear plants, oil refineries, railways and toll highways. As a result, cement, iron, steel and several other resource-intensive sectors, the main targets of Beijing's efforts in the past few years to cool the once overheating economy, will be winners from the new investment.
A senior source close to the Ministry of Environmental Protection, which has the power to approve large projects based on mandatory environmental impact assessments, said the ministry was facing intense pressure not to hamper economic growth - so much so that ministry officials had begun talking about a 'green passage' to speed up approvals for projects to boost domestic demand.
The source said the ministry was struggling to fight the political pressure and uphold strict standards.
According to one mainland media report, the ministry approved 93 projects, worth more than 260 billion yuan, in just three days in November. The news added to public concerns about the ministry's sincerity in sticking to environmental standards, so the ministry responded by rolling out a new rule requiring that officials maintain tough environmental standards as well as speeding up project approvals.
Explaining the decision, Zhao Weijun, head of the ministry's environmental impact assessment department, admitted to Caijing magazine various examples of standards being sacrificed for the economic rescue package. Some polluting industries suspended because of environmental concerns were allowed to resume work, he said.
The senior environmental source said it would be great if 'we can keep up the pace while maintaining quality, but how is it possible given the limited time and limited people? Everyone [in the ministry] gets worried about the quality of environmental assessments and the possible resurgence of energy-intensive and polluting industries.'
Environmentalist Wu Dengming , who is based in Chongqing , said infrastructure projects such as railways and toll roads absorbed huge investment but created few jobs and would do little to help ease fears about the global slump.
The main sources of pollution - such as cement, steel, coal and power production -would benefit the most.
'It's a vicious cycle: the more you spend, the more pollution will be incurred,' Mr Wu said.
What's more, assurances about clean energy have yet to be translated into real money. Wang Yongjiang , president of the Beijing Xiongcai Group, which produces boilers that burn briquettes made from coal, organic waste and coal mine tailings, said his invention had yet to receive governmental support.
Ma Jun , head of the non-governmental Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, said Beijing should not lose sight of the need to change the traditional model of 'develop first and clean up later', proven wrong in the past 30 years.
Even so, he said: 'Local authorities will understandably choose the easy option of boosting production and investing in infrastructure rather than taking pains to experiment on ways to make economic development more energy efficient and environmentally friendly.'
Mr Ma and other experts said the government had yet to learn the bitter lessons of the past, when economic leaps led to ugly environmental consequences.
'It remains to be seen if those green pledges are mere rhetoric,' Mr Ma said. 'Can we and the environment sustain further environmental damage?'
The number of economy-boosting projects, according to a mainland media report, approved by the environment ministry in just three days in November: 93