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March 14th, 2008:

Sepa’s Extra Teeth A Small Step In The Right Direction

Sepa’s Extra Teeth A Small Step In The Right Direction, Analysts Say

Updated on Mar 14, 2008 – SCMP

In this second in a series of analyses on the State Council’s reform plan, Shi Jiangtao looks at the elevation of the State Environmental Protection Administration to a ministry

The proposed elevation of the State Environmental Protection Administration to ministry status has been widely applauded inside and outside the Great Hall of the People as a big boost for the beleaguered watchdog and the country’s uphill battle to clean its foul water and skies.

The move has followed growing calls at home and abroad in recent years for Sepa’s elevation to a full ministry, which many have said would better represent the environmental view in national decisions.

The much-anticipated move would also grant the green watchdog equal footing with other ministries in the cabinet and give it much-needed teeth in dealing with development-minded local authorities and industrial polluters, according to mainland officials and analysts.

But the promotion of the top watchdog – falling short of overhauling the nation’s fractured environmental system, which left power scattered among various government agencies – could hardly make a big difference in reversing widespread pollution and appalling degradation, they said.

“It is a step in the right direction,” said Wang Shucheng , a former water resources minister. “It will give the green watchdog a bigger say in the State Council and help involve it in decisions at the state level.”

Apart from a bigger budget and more staff, the new environmental protection ministry is expected to see its power boosted modestly, according to Wu Xiaoqing , deputy chief of Sepa.

“The growing clout of the environmental authorities over the past decades has shown an increasing green awareness in the leadership.”

The environmental watchdog did not become a separate member of the State Council until 1987, when it split from the Ministry of Construction. It was upgraded to a ministerial-level administration in the last round of government restructuring in 1998.

“The fact that Sepa was the only administration in the State Council that got promoted this time highlights enormous government support for the environmental protection mission,” said Mr Wu.

Wang Canfa , an environmental law professor at the China University of Political Science and Law, said the move would also give local green watchdogs more bite.

But the plan unveiled on Tuesday failed to provide details about how local environmental offices would be affected. Instead, the State Council document said “apart from necessary changes requested by the party central in line with the government revamp”, local governments could decide by themselves if a similar bureaucratic shake-up was needed.

According to Mr Wu, Beijing will release a separate directive that provides instructions on local government restructuring.

Environmental officials have often attributed the stalled campaigns to curb pollution and crack down on industrial polluters to rampant local resistance and that power is scattered across various departments and ministries.

Professor Wang said the increased clout would be far from enough for the watchdog to check local authorities’ pursuit of economic growth, which often comes at the expense of the environment.

“The elevation will not automatically make Sepa’s decision more powerful and effective at the grass-roots level, given the fact that local green watchdogs are predominantly controlled by their respective governments. It is just like a cat-and-mouse game,” he said, referring to the relationship between local governments and environmental offices.

Deputy Sepa director Pan Yue complained last week that the lack of legal support and administrative power had hampered the watchdog’s efforts to block many large environmentally sensitive projects.

Another case in point is the much-criticised campaign to control water pollution. Sepa shared such water pollution control responsibilities with at least five other government agencies, including ministries of agriculture, construction and water resources and the State Oceanic Administration.

Some scholars and officials, including Mr Wu, have called for an environmental “mega ministry” aimed at revamping the fractured system, combining scattered power and cutting bureaucratic overlap.

But the former water resources minister Mr Wang rejected the idea. “It is not necessary, and it is impossible,” he said, noting that environmental protection goals could not be achieved until “every government department is fully involved”.

“Rather than dreaming about a super ministry, Sepa should try to enlist support of other ministries to make real efforts to protect ecology.” Many experts also pointed out that the elevation of Sepa to a ministry would not bring an end to bureaucratic wrangling, an inherent problem with the overstaffed and inefficient government.

Stricter US Ozone Standard Falls Short Of Recommendation

Reuters in Washington – Updated on Mar 14, 2008The US Environmental Protection Agency has toughened smog standards for the first time in a decade – but the new requirements are still more lax than the agency’s own scientists recommended.

Stephen Johnson, the agency’s chief, said he had complied with the Clean Air Act and with scientific data in setting the new ozone standard at a strict 75 parts per billion in ambient air in the US. The previous standard was 80 parts per billion, but since results were rounded down, this was effectively 84 parts per billion.

The agency’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee had, however, recommended a standard of 60 to 70 parts per billion, with the lower level suggested for children who were more vulnerable to ozone pollution, the prime component of smog.

Counties that cannot meet the standard face the threat of limits on the construction of new highways and industries.

Industries had urged the government to retain the higher standard, citing the high cost of meeting the new requirement.

“The regulation I signed today is compelled by the Clean Air Act and the most recent scientific data on the effects of ozone on human health,” Mr Johnson said in a telephone briefing. “Since the EPA last updated ozone standards … scientific studies have indicated ozone’s health impacts are more significant and certain than we previously understood.”

Unlike stratospheric ozone, which forms a protective layer high above Earth’s surface, ground-level ozone can make it hard to breathe and aggravate asthma and other respiratory conditions.

It can also damage plants, making disease and reduced crop yields more likely.

“The EPA has taken a baby step instead of the strong action doctors say is needed to protect our lungs,” said David Baron of the environmental group Earthjustice.

The new standards came in response to a court-ordered deadline in a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice in 2003 on behalf of the American Lung Association, Environmental Defence, the Natural Resources Defence Council, and other conservation groups.

We Can All Help Keep Air Clean

Updated on Mar 14, 2008 – SCMP

I know that the air quality in Hong Kong is dreadful.

There is so much pollution in the city, which causes our skies to darken. I am sure all of us want to see brighter skies. We can all help to reduce the pollution caused by emissions from vehicles, by choosing to walk to destinations when it is feasible to do so.

Also, when we have a holiday, we could opt, sometimes, to spend it in Hong Kong, rather than boarding a plane, which pollutes the atmosphere.

Naomi Chau, The Peak

Forecast Haze Was Just Smog

Forecast `Haze’ Was Just Smog

Updated on Mar 14, 2008 – SCMP

On Tuesday, the Observatory’s local weather forecast predicted: “Mainly fine but hazy. Moderate easterly winds. Outlook : Sunny periods with haze in the next few days.” Is it really just haze? or should the Observatory change the description to “shadowed with smog” so that it will raise people’s awareness over pollution in Hong Kong?

It is apparent that the Environmental Protection Department’s Action Blue Sky campaign has been a failure so far. I did not see even a tint of blue in the sky on Tuesday. The air pollution level according to the department’s website was (medium) to “high” everywhere. Even without the index, I felt an instant disgust when I looked out the window. Can the department tell us what it is doing to improve our air quality or can we anticipate that the Standard Chartered marathon be moved out of Hong Kong next year because no athletes wish to run in Hong Kong anymore?

Penny Shen, Wan Chai

Idling Engines An Infringement

Updated on Mar 14, 2008 – SCMP

Saturday was warm and I saw a familiar scene that will be repeated many times over the next few months. A scout master who was drilling Scouts in an open space next to a school, got involved in an argument with the driver of a car, which had its engine idling. The scout master objected to his Scouts having to suffer, just so the driver could feel comfortable.

This cuts to the heart of the issue. Especially in a small place like Hong Kong, with an excellent public transport system, the problem should be seen for what it is – an infringement issue.

Do private car owners, a minority, have the right to pollute the air that we all need to breathe? For anyone near a road the threat is vehicle emissions, not cross-border pollution.

The simple reason you will not see any legislation banning idling engines, is because most legislators have at least one luxury car. The lesson our elite learned exceedingly well from colonial society was the primacy of preserving their own interests.

As dynamic cities like London, Paris and New York experiment with ways to reduce the number of private cars and debate personal carbon allowances, static societies cook up outmoded projects like the Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai bridge.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for a ban on idling engines.

Kara Young, Kowloon Tong