Truth about pollution still shrouded by secrecy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 January, 2012, 12:00am


The Year of the Dragon has been greeted with a stubborn shroud of white haze that refuses to lift from the capital.

It resembles the haze of secrecy still blocking access to key environmental information, from the government's clean-up spending to pollution data to related diseases and protests.

Transparency still remains elusive, with many of the government's pledges going unfulfilled - such as on openness and providing clean air and water - despite an extremely eventful 2011 that was marked by worsening ecological degradation, rampant pollution scandals and soaring environmental disputes and unrest.

But while major pollution indicators show the country has plunged deeper into an environmental crisis, and as frustration spreads over the lack of environmental justice, a ray of hope has come from the fact that environmental awareness is soaring.

Thanks to the internet, and especially the surging popularity of social networking sites in the past two years, government power and its secretive decision-making process have been put under the microscope of unprecedented public scrutiny.

Although the government has yet to show willingness to change the prevailing culture of secrecy, environmentalists remain hopeful about the prospect of meaningful changes with a healthy dose of public pressure and dialogue.

They point to small, incremental steps that authorities have already taken, whether willingly or not, especially in enlisting the public to help confront an array of environmental challenges.

While persistent smog hovering over major cities remains a top challenge, other possible flashpoints on the environmental watch list for 2012 range from the looming crisis over water and soil pollution to the renewed frenzy of building hydropower dams; and from the government's push for controversial incinerators to dozens of secretive nuclear and toxic petrochemical projects planned or being built around the country.

With Beijing pinning hope on big dams to showcase its efforts to boost clean energy sectors in the next decade, dam building looks set to reinvigorate an old row among environmental critics, power companies and local authorities.

Beijing's dam programme would boost hydropower capacity 50 per cent to 300,000 megawatts by 2015. This year alone, construction will begin on hydropower projects with a total power generation capacity of 20,000MW, according to Liu Tienan, director of the National Energy Administration.

The government's handling of municipal rubbish, highlighted by a plan to build more than 200 incinerators by 2015, has also become a major source of discontent and unrest.

China is the world's top producer of household waste, and authorities insist that incinerators, which save limited land resources compared with landfills, are the best solution, despite widespread health concerns and protests in cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong and Nanjing, in the recent years.

Pollution-related protests have soared at a stunning rate over the past decade, increasing 30 per cent a year, according to an estimate by the Ministry of Environmental Protection.

The actual figure, however, remains a well-guarded secret, with the ministry becoming even more secretive since its elevation to a full-fledged ministry in 2008.

The only official figure available is that there were about 51,000 pollution protests in 2005.

But topping the 2012 watch list of environmental challenges is still the health-threatening PM2.5.

PM2.5, a technical term referring to particles below 2.5 microns in diameter and rarely heard just a few months ago, has quickly become a catchphrase. And it also found its way into the five-year pollution-control blueprint released by the environmental ministry last month.

Even Premier Wen Jiabao and his deputy, Li Keqiang, have spoken about PM2.5 in recent months, saying that pollution woes surrounding PM2.5 particles must be tackled urgently.

The smog-plagued capital on Saturday became the first mainland city to release real-time PM2.5 data. While it is a commendable effort to meet growing public demand for greater transparency, it is worth noting that Beijing still lags behind many other mainland cities both in terms of air quality and government openness.

Worse still, authorities in the capital appear to have great difficulty accepting that fact.

While there are already 25 stations monitoring PM2.5 data in Shanghai, 10 in Guangzhou and two in Shenyang, an old industrial city in Liaoning, officials in the capital have reiterated that Beijing has only one station equipped to monitor PM2.5 data.

Responding to questions last week about the lack of monitoring stations, a senior official with the municipal environmental bureau said, 'The number of PM2.5 stations doesn't tell much, and it by no means proves Beijing lags behind other cities.'

But he said Beijing planned to select six stations to monitor PM2.5 data 24 hours a day and would buy enough equipment to cover all 27 air pollution stations across the city.

While officials in Beijing have insisted that not releasing PM2.5 data was strictly a technical issue, environmentalists say it's more due to the government's lack of openness.

After all, even Beijing authorities admit, embarrassingly, that the capital still has to count on wind and rain to clear smoggy air.

Du Shaozhong, spokesman and deputy director of the Municipal Bureau of Environmental Protection, may have revealed the true thinking of government officials behind their repeated attempts to impede transparency.

It would be too embarrassing for authorities if the public found out their government was unable to curb PM2.5, he said.