A senior environmental policy official has warned the mainland faces an "extremely grave" environmental crisis that will only worsen as pollution increases and the health problems its causes come to light.
Wang Jinnan, a deputy director at the Chinese Academy of Environmental Planning, told a three-day conference at the Chinese University of Hong Kong that the country has not yet come to grips with the amount of toxins seeping into the ground, pollution that would linger for decades to come.
"China's pollution problem has yet to reach a peak," said Wang, whose institution helps draft policies for the Ministry of Environmental Protection. "While it is fair to say that some traditional pollutants, such as sulphur dioxide, have been put under control, other problems which pose even greater health risks to the public have yet to gain policymakers' attention."
Wang cited heavy metals and other hazardous chemicals that can accumulate in human bodies, causing cancer. Previously unknown chemical spills are still emerging at former industrial sites and some cities, as no clear mapping of such polluted sites has been worked out.
"The toxic chemicals are far more dangerous [than organic compounds]," Wang said on Friday. "So the country's environmental prospects are extremely grave."
The conference was held at Chinese University to discuss the successes and failures of four decades of environmental protection policies on the mainland, where citizens are becoming increasingly aware of pollution and its health risks.
In the wake of repeated dumping scandals and the emergence of cancer clusters around the nation, mainlanders have begun taking to the streets to protest AT big industrial projects, in some cases derailing them.
Other environmental experts, such as Tsinghua University air pollution specialist Hao Jiming, shared Wang's pessimism. Hao lambasted as contradictory the government's effort to control pollution while pursuing maximum economic growth.
He noted that the country's most energy-intensive and heavy-polluting industries, such as coal, iron and steel, beat the growth targets approved by the National People's Congress for 2006 to 2010. That shows the government has not taken seriously the pollution controls sought by the top legislature, he said.
"Does this suggest the social and economic development plan approved by the National People's Congress actually meant nothing to the State Council?" Hao said. "Also, when the 4 trillion yuan (HK$4.54 trillion) bailout package was unveiled, was there any review of its environmental impact once carried out?"
He said the technology to control some air pollutants has been pushed to its limits.
"There is already little space left for further cutting emissions of sulfur dioxide," Hao said. "If coal consumption continues to grow at such a rapid pace, the scale of pollution would be unacceptable."
Professor Wang Canfa of the China University of Political Science and Law said reckless decisions shared the same root cause as many other social woes: that authorities were "above the law".
"So some good principles in China's environmental laws and regulations were never really respected and implemented," Wang Canfa added.
Some environmentalists have pinned their hopes on the new leadership, led by Communist Party general secretary Xi Jinping, which has pledged to "prioritise" the environmental in future policies. But Wang Canfa was not optimistic.
"Priority means that if there is a conflict between environmental protection and economic growth, the development plan should be abandoned," he said. "But the notion will not have any real effect until it is law, and the law is respected."
Experts said the scale of pollution accumulated during decades of breakneck growth would take years, and a huge amount of public money, to clean up. Huai River and Dian Lake, for instance, remain heavily polluted after almost two decades of clean-up work that has cost billions of yuan. Hao, the air quality expert from Tsinghua University, said mainlanders may have to wait until as late as 2050 to breathe air that meets World Health Organisation guidelines. "Even a 2050 deadline is considered by some environmental officials as too aggressive."