The national environmental watchdog has released yet another shocking report that makes grim reading: China's discharges of acid rain-causing sulfur dioxide have topped the world and they caused economic losses exceeding 509.8 billion yuan last year. The revelation is all the more depressing as it shows the State Environmental Protection Administration (Sepa) to be toothless. Sepa says it has signed 'a set of documents' with the mainland's six largest power companies, which are responsible for more than 60 per cent of sulfur dioxide emissions, to 'prompt' them to reduce discharges. The choice of words is instructive as it shows the documents are not binding. The ministry can only urge the companies to behave, but not force them to abide by emissions standards by imposing fines or closing them down. These punitive provisions exist on paper, but the power to invoke them rests with local authorities. If the country's highest body responsible for protecting the environment can only urge power companies to address a serious problem for which they are clearly responsible, there can be little hope that Beijing's ambitious targets on reducing this and other kinds of pollution can be met. Sepa's predicament illustrates the sad reality that central authorities have to confront in tackling the growing might of local governments. Beijing has repeatedly stressed the need to put the environment first, but local officials are not listening. They are still more concerned about the disruption to industrial production that strict enforcement of environmental laws would cause. To ensure its directives are followed, Beijing recently decided to include the achievement of environmental objectives as a criterion for assessing the performance of local cadres. The idea is that those who fail to protect the environment stand a poorer chance of getting promotions. Time will tell if the strategy will work, but the early signs are not promising. This year Beijing has set a goal of reducing energy consumption per unit of economic growth by 4 per cent. However, instead of leading to lower consumption, the figure has gone up by 0.8 per cent in the first six months of the year. A new strategy to prompt local governments to take sustainable development seriously is called for. The central government has to deepen reforms so that authorities at all levels will not have their hands tied by sectoral interests in enforcing the law. Despite years of market reforms, many local governments still have intricate ties, directly or indirectly, with enterprises they cannot afford to offend. Beijing also needs to abolish controls over electricity tariffs. For fear of sparking social unrest, the tariffs in many localities do not fully reflect the costs of power generation and transmission. No wonder power companies cannot be forced to install desulfurisation facilities and adhere to strict emission standards. Subsidised power also gives consumers no incentives to save energy. Sulfur dioxide is a known cause of respiratory problems, and acid rain is blamed for the acidification of lakes and streams and damaging sensitive soil. People are suffering, but grass-roots attempts to take the culprits to task have often been ignored by local governments. There is a need to develop a legal system based on the rule of law, so that courts can play a bigger role in ensuring environmental laws are followed and victims properly compensated. Beijing should also lift its controls over a shackled media, so that a free press can help bring public pressure on local leaders to target polluters. It will, sadly, be a long time before pollution on the mainland can be combated by the passing and enforcing of tough laws. But that must be the aim. It is a great shame that the country has achieved so little in reducing sulfur dioxide emissions, when the major perpetrators can be easily identified and the toll on human health and the environment is rising daily.