China's green ministry failing in its mission

Hopes upgraded protection agency would clean up the nation fade as pollution worsens

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 July, 2013, 4:15am

When the State Environmental Protection Agency was upgraded to a ministry five years ago, expectations were high that it was finally being given some teeth.

The move did give the green watchdog a cabinet seat, enabling it to have its voice heard in major economic development decisions. Many hoped environmental damage could be headed off in advance and that officials could be persuaded to reconsider their growth-first mindset.

But five years on, the public has become impatient as pollution continues to worsen. Choking haze, dirty rivers, soil pollution leading to toxic rice and vegetables, and polluting factories built or planned close to homes have led to growing street protests.

The ministry's latest state of the environment report described the situation as "grim", with 30 per cent of major rivers "polluted" or "severely polluted", and 60 per cent of groundwater rated "bad" or "extremely bad".

As the National People's Congress met in March in a Beijing shrouded in smog, support for Environment Minister Zhou Shengxian and the NPC's new environmental protection and resource conservation committee hit a low almost unprecedented in the rubber stamp legislature.

Yang Ailun, a senior associate with the World Resources Institute, a Washington-based environmental NGO, said although the ministry had a higher status than the agency and was better equipped with technology and expertise, it was still largely failing to keep pace with environmental degradation and increasingly complicated challenges.

He Gang, an energy and climate policy researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, said ministry status had made it "more powerful on the surface … but not in the teeth and claws" needed to implement laws and regulations and offer incentives.

He said the ministry should take credit for some policymaking progress, including the upgrading of environmental standards and the disclosure of information, and using more economic incentives to curb pollution.

"But the enforcement is not positive," He said. That was partly due to the conflicting interests of various agencies - something that had not been changed by the upgrading of the ministry five years ago, he added.

The environment ministry's decisions sometimes needed to be co-ordinated with other ministries, powerful state-owned enterprises, and local governments. And the linked vested interests of polluters and governments often resulted in glaring gaps between policy and actual enforcement.

For instance, despite its vow to improve the disclosure of information, the ministry had disappointed the public by refusing to disclose information in a number of cases.

Zhou said in November that the ministry would "push forward with information disclosure, and publish all information in environmental reviews [for industrial projects] as well as promises made by governments at all levels [concerning environmental protection]".

But when some Yunnan residents asked for information about environmental reviews on a controversial oil refinery project near Kunming owned by China National Petroleum Corporation, the country's largest oil producer, the ministry responded this month by saying it needed to "solicit opinions from the third party" first.

The ministry had also rejected a lawyer's request that it publish the findings of an expensive nationwide soil pollution survey, because it was deemed a national secret. Some internet users said the ministry "should change its name to the Information Protection Ministry".

Critics say enforcement is lax at local levels due to the lack of rule of law and the fact that local environmental authorities are under local governments, and so have little say in blocking polluting projects that promise to boost government coffers.

"The lack of independence of the local environmental bureaus seriously compromises their ability to serve as effective watchdogs," Yang said.

Directors of local environmental protection bureaus have increasingly become targets of public fury when pollution is found. In February, a Zhejiang businessman offered 200,000 yuan (HK$255,500) to a local environmental protection director if he would swim in a very polluted river for 20 minutes. Other directors then received similar invitations. None have taken up the challenge.

Local governments' obsession with economic growth - and the perks that go to officials who achieve it - have also hindered efforts to protect the environment.

Beijing supposedly started to include local officials' achievement of green targets in their performance assessments nine years ago, but not much has changed.

A study by Chinese, Singaporean and Canadian academics found that spending on environmental improvements actually reduced a mainland mayor's promotion prospects, while investing in transport infrastructure that could boost economic growth greatly enhanced them.

Local environmental chiefs also had little chance of further promotion, according to a paper by an unnamed Central Party School academic published in the Juece public policy magazine.

In the reshuffle after the new central government took office, only one provincial environmental bureau chief was promoted to deputy ministerial level, the paper said.

"As long as the incentive mechanism, the performance evaluation and promotion system, do not change, the central government emphasis is just another slogan," He said.

But some environmentalists say institutional flaws should not be used as an excuse for the ministry's inaction over the past five years.

Environmentalist Liu Jianqiang wrote in an opinion piece that the ministry had been trying to shirk its responsibilities when faced with environmental protests, and sometimes had even tried to shelter big companies, such as granting approvals for hydropower projects that were strongly opposed by green groups.

"Also, it had refused to come clean on the air pollution problem and release information about PM2.5 until the smog angered the top leadership," Liu wrote on the bilingual environmental blog ChinaDialogue.

"Despite the [institutional] weakness, the ministry is still endowed with sufficient administrative power as the highest environmental authority … they don't have any excuse."