Laying the foundations for a greener China

Last week in America, The Associated Press ran a story on how the California wildfires were spewing millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and suggesting that the emissions could contribute to global warming. Most readers probably found the piece pretty harmless. But, if you were one of the unfortunate thousands whose houses had actually burned to the ground, you probably couldn't help wondering whether the media was missing the point.

Reporters straining for angles and bureaucrats with obscure national mandates, but little accountability to locals, often ignore the important things - and the more important environmental concerns. Nowhere is that truer than in mainland China, where the combination of a booming manufacturing sector and weak property rights is wreaking environmental havoc.

For example, parts of Tai Lake, China's third-largest freshwater lake, are still beautiful. But, after 25 years of unchecked industrial growth, pollution has become widespread. Small numbers of activists have protested about the ongoing contamination, and some have reportedly been fined, had their properties seized or, in some cases, even been beaten and imprisoned.

'The state owns the water sources under the current law, so I think it would be very difficult for individual farmers without ownership or use rights to the lake to bring a claim,' says Keliang Zhu, of the US-based Rural Development Institute, a non-profit organisation of lawyers dedicated to helping people in developing countries obtain legal rights to land. 'Not to mention the difficulty of enforcing the judgment, if they ever get a favourable one from the court.'

The announcement last week that the Ministry of Commerce would join the weak State Environmental Protection Administration in enforcing environmental regulations is good news. But between the concerns of local residents and those of massive manufacturing operations, the government is clear where it stands. The locals have little hope of restraining businesses' excesses.

'Only the collective villages, or the village groups, are the legal owners of the land. That gives the farmers a significant disadvantage if their land suffers pollution in some way,' added Mr Zhu.

In the US, developments like that around Tai Lake would lead to a local backlash, campaigns and media attention. Property owners could band together and pursue class-action lawsuits against the companies polluting their land and water sources. It's hard to do that, however, when you don't have paper contracts or certificates to prove you own the properties being polluted.

In August, the State Council approved a plan to issue land-rights documentation to 90 per cent of farm households by the end of the year. But that's an extraordinarily ambitious goal, and without proof of ownership, farmers have little recourse. Beijing has been slow to acknowledge the extent of the pollution around Tai Lake, but lately it has begun using the internet to encourage local and grass-roots responses to the most egregious cases. Contamination has grown so pervasive that the government needs eyes and ears on the ground.

But for years, Beijing and businesses have worked hand in hand to build manufacturing facilities and there are endless numbers of foreign companies trying to reap the benefits. The government remains, at best, capricious in its enforcement efforts.

In the US, homeowners who lost their houses to the California wildfires received insurance payments, and no doubt many will rebuild their houses. Whatever the cause of property destruction, preventing and hedging against it requires the right incentives. It requires co-ordinating responses in a manner that empowers the individuals affected, rather than officials hundreds of kilometres away. It also requires clearly defined property rights, and the ability to seek redress of grievances.

David Donadio is a writer and editor at the Cato Institute in Washington