China showing signs of progress in fighting pollution

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 July, 2013, 4:17am

Elevating environmental protection to full ministry status recognised the serious pollution resulting from China's surging economic growth. That was more than five years ago. Regrettably, there is little evidence that the ministry's voice in the cabinet has carried real weight in terms of heading off any environmental damage from major economic development decisions and reining in the growth-first mindset of officials.

The former state environmental protection administration was upgraded to address complaints by environmental officials that they lacked the power to enforce the rules or fine polluters. But enforcement has been disappointing, partly because of the conflicting interests of various government agencies. All too often the vested interests of polluters and governments have prevailed. There are reports of environmental officials colluding with business and, because the ministry has more power, officials now also have more leverage to extort money.

That said, the ministry can claim some progress at the policy level. Its responsibility for reviewing environmental impact assessments ahead of any industrial proposals involving nuclear activity, major investments and those deemed ecologically sensitive has put the brakes on local governments' pursuit of growth at any cost. But activists are concerned at the ministry's plan to hand many of its powers to local government to reduce interference, calling it a "pollution formula".

Things may improve now that officials will no longer be judged solely by economic achievements, according to President Xi Jinping , but also by outcomes for people's livelihoods and the environment. If that was prompted at least in part by the smog that shrouded Beijing during the National People's Congress in March, there is hope the memory won't fade. This is because an analysis of 17 separate population-based health investigations among more than 300,000 people in Europe has confirmed a strong causal link between lung cancer and air pollution, according to a British medical report.

The study, which took into account other factors such as smoking, focused on the lifestyles of more than 2,000 people who died of lung cancer. In particular it looked at their exposure to fine-particle matter - residual pollution from coal-fired power stations, cars and factories, all of which symbolise China's economic progress. Clearly, the country's foul air, as well as polluted waterways and contaminated soil, pose a threat to public health and social stability.