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Upgrade Gives Watchdog More Clout In Pollution Fight

Agency’s deputy director lauds advance to full ministry

Shi Jiangtao in Beijing – Updated on Mar 13, 2008 – SCMP

The elevation of the mainland’s environmental watchdog to a full ministry has boosted its power in tackling widespread pollution and local protectionism, which showed little sign of improvement in the past year, a senior environmental official said.

But despite Beijing announcing initial progress in cutting pollution and promoting energy efficiency last week, State Environmental Protection Administration (Sepa) deputy director Wu Xiaoqing admitted that little headway had been made in reversing the country’s worsening ecological degradation.

He attributed the stalled government efforts to cut pollution, a major source of public dissatisfaction and social unrest, to the country’s robust economic growth.

“Environmental woes are a result of the country’s development in the past three decades. And those problems can only be addressed through further economic growth,” he said. “According to our surveys, some pollutants have been controlled and the environment in some areas has improved.”

But the trend of severe pollution across the country remained unchanged as control efforts had been largely offset by emissions from further development.

“In the light of the current situation of growth, it is already an incredible achievement to maintain a relatively stable environmental quality,” Mr Wu said on the sidelines of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

With the mainland’s gross domestic product expanding at about 10 per cent a year, various energy-intensive and heavy polluting industries were growing fast – including chemical, metal and electricity production – and the increase in the amount of discharge was huge, he said.

The poor implementation of a mechanism to hold officials more accountable for pollution also hampered Beijing’s environmental cleanup campaign, he added.

Premier Wen Jiabao said at the opening of the National People’s Congress meeting last week that Beijing had cut levels of acid-rain-causing sulfur dioxide and chemical oxygen demand (COD), a measure of water pollution, for the first time in years.

The mainland also reported less energy consumption per unit of GDP last year, which was cited by Mr Wen as a major achievement in coping with the country’s pollution.

Mr Wu acknowledged that last year’s progress was far from enough to honour commitments by the premier two years ago that the mainland would cut energy consumption by 20 per cent and reduce air pollution by 10 per cent by 2010.

But he said elevating the environmental watchdog to a Ministry of Environmental Protection was encouraging given widespread doubts about Beijing’s ability to tackle pollution and meet its own commitments for a “green” Olympics.

“It is a milestone in the history of China’s environmental protection and it ushers in a new era for our pollution-control efforts,” he said.

Mr Wu said Sepa’s promotion to ministry status would give the largely toothless watchdog a bigger say in the State Council and help it fight local governments obsessed with economic growth.

Sepa has often blamed its limited power for its failure to tackle local protectionism, powerful interest groups and other central government agencies.

The much-anticipated green GDP project was a case in point, Mr Wu said.

The project, aimed at calculating the ecological cost of the country’s sizzling economic growth, was shelved because of strong local opposition and bureaucratic wrangling shortly after the Communist Party’s national congress last year.

“We will be in a much better position to promote green GDP accounting and tackling the differences with other ministries,” he said.

Despite saying that controlling pollution remained an arduous task, Mr Wu said his confidence in achieving environmental improvement had been greatly boosted by the elevation, as well as the government’s increased spending in the past few years to install facilities to clean up air and water pollution.

“You don’t need to worry about pollution,” he said. “We have a [political] system … that is particularly good at dealing with difficult tasks.”

Mr Wu said the government had yet to work out a plan to compensate provinces neighbouring Beijing for their pollution-cutting contributions to the Games.

“Hosting the Olympics is a national event and it is an obligation for other regions to contribute,” he said.

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