China has made great progress in environmental protection but still has a long way to go, according to the chief of an agency that funds green projects. The assessment of Mohamed T. El-Ashry, chairman of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), was shared by many of the more than 1,300 delegates from 29 countries attending the organisation's second world assembly in Beijing last week. Environmental issues have taken on greater importance in China. Terms such as ecological protection and sustainable development have entered the vocabulary of government officials. In his opening address to the conference on Wednesday, President Jiang Zemin said: 'The Chinese government attaches great importance to environmental protection and unswervingly commits itself to the strategy of sustainable development.' From 1998 to 2000, Beijing has spent about 580 billion yuan (HK$545 billion) on environmental projects. In its 10th Five-Year Plan (2001 to 2005), official figures show the nation will increase spending to more than 700 billion yuan. Beijing has also passed laws on issues ranging from air pollution, environmental impacts assessments and cleaner production. It has signed 35 bilateral environmental protection agreements, including the Kyoto Protocol aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions. These efforts have brought results. An international study showed that China cut carbon dioxide emissions by 7.3 per cent in 2000 from 1996 levels. From 1990 to 2000, consumption of coal dropped significantly. Beijing achieved these reductions while maintaining impressive economic growth - an average of about nine per cent in the past decade, enabling more than 200 million people to be lifted out of poverty. For such achievements, China has been cited as a role model for the developing world. Jean-Baptiste Kambou, a delegate from the West African nation of Burkina Faso, said: 'China has shown to other Third World countries you can achieve sustainable development.' Despite these successes, Chinese officials are under no illusions. In his remarks at the Global Environment Facility assembly, Xie Zhenhua, director of the State Environmental Protection Administration, said China's environmental problems 'remain very serious'. The nation continues to face worsening deforestation, desertification, species extinction, and air and water pollution. Previous environmental improvements have been negated by new problems. Reductions in coal pollution in major urban areas have now been replaced by rising vehicle exhaust emissions. Corruption also is hampering efforts to safeguard the environment. 'Environmental protection has now become the new tool for corrupt government officials,' said one Beijing-based environmental consultant. With millions of yuan being handled by government officials, environment specialists tell of having to pay kickbacks to local officials and their cronies when bidding for projects. One environmental consultant estimates that corruption accounts for up to 50 per cent of costs on environmental projects. Offsetting the problem of graft is the emergence of public activism for environmental protection. State media are now giving environmental issues front-page attention. Citizens across the country and from all walks of life are forming activist groups intent on holding the government to account on environmental protection. Five years ago, only a handful of such groups existed, mostly in Beijing. Now, environmental groups are found in every province. At the GEF assembly, representatives of mainland activist groups were busy attending forums and posing tough questions to government officials. When asked by a representative of a non-government organisation when public groups will have more say in policies, Vice-Minister of Finance Jin Liqun replied: 'Believe me, we value your input and put the work of NGOs very much in the front of our work.' Mr Jin's remark is a good signal. In the fight to clean up the nation's environmental mess, China needs all the help it can get.