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Public Encouraged To Tackle Pollution

By SHAILESH PALEKAR – UPI Correspondent – Published: February 20, 2008

HONG KONG, China, Encouraging public participation to tackle pollution is an important feature in new environmental legislation introduced by the Chinese government, a report released today in Hong Kong, by the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs and World Wide Fund, has said.

The report titled “China Greening: the emerging role of the Public” in collaboration with CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets, a Hong Kong based regional investment house states that China’s greatest asset at present, to counter growing levels of pollution, is an increasingly vigilant public. The report says that the public now enjoy more support from the government with the implementation of several recent laws to counter environmental hazards.

The massive scale of environmental degradation costing the government in excess of US$100 billion annually has prompted the government to encourage public participation in tackling the issue as it finds its own resources limited and inadequate. “In the face of complicated and arduous environmental-protection work, it is impossible to rely on environmental authorities alone. The only way to break the deadlock is to enlist the power to the public,” Pan Yue, Deputy Minister of the State Environmental Protection Agency said.

Increasing economic development in China in the form of manufacturing units and production facilities has created a series of environmental problems due to non-compliance of set standards. This has strained relationships between local communities and polluting entities, which in some instances have lead to violent confrontations. According to government statistics, the number of complaints made to environmental authorities has increased 30 percent annually since 2002 while the number of collective incidents triggered by environmental damage has increased by an average of 29 percent per year.

“There is a growing consensus that we need to strike a balance between economic development and environmental protection,” says Ma Jun, Director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs. “And the Chinese government has responded with new laws and policies that encourage greater disclosure and public participation in environmental governance.”

According to the report, while the government has improved public access to environmental data, greater transparency of corporate violations has led to increased public scrutiny on corporate behavior.

“Public disclosure of polluting enterprises will prove to be a key motivator for companies to do business in a more responsible fashion,” says Liam Slater, Head of the Climate Program at WWF in Hong Kong.

The government’s strategy of involving the public to police environmental issues has also encouraged NGO’s like the IPE to expose environmental violators to public scrutiny and intervention. IPE’s web-based China water pollution map, sourced from government and other publicly available data has demanded accountability from multinational companies such as Pepsi, Bridgestone, Nissin, Veolia and Samsung amongst others, for violating environmental standards.

Local NGO’s are also tapping consumer purchasing power to pressure polluters to change their ways. The “Green Choice Initiative” launched by 21 environmental groups in China, in 2007, encourage consumers to carefully consider companies’ environmental performance when making daily retail purchases and other buying decisions. Since the launch of the GCI, some 50 companies in violation of water quality standards have reportedly approached environmental groups to resolve the identified environmental concerns.

Greater awareness and shifting attitudes of consumers towards environmental compliance by companies is likely to have strong repercussions for both corporate entities and investors. For example, it could extend the construction time of projects that could affect earnings and investors would have to wait longer for their returns on investments.

A vigilant public is widely seen as policing greater responsible corporate behavior and Slater believes that, “in some ways, the level of transparency and public participation is a driving or limiting factor in the evolution of and enforcement of environmental regulation.”

Beyond all the talk of greater public participation, the main concern however, remains of how the government would implement and enforce its ambitious goals of tackling the pollution and environment issues. “When we look at its (the government’s) Eleventh 5 year plan and some of the targets in there, we see that in the initial years, those targets were not been hit. And, while we have seen another level of policy response from Beijing to drive the message even harder, we are still not convinced that the energy intensity targets, or the pollution targets or the renewable targets will be achieved by 2010.”

While skepticism prevails on implementation, Slater pins the premise of the report on hope. “We see a trend toward greater levels of public participation and greater levels of transparency and we see support for that trend from the government.”

While in principle, the Chinese government should play a bigger and stronger role in tackling environmental issues, in reality it is not able to address such a complex issue within a short time frame, believes Y.K Park, a researcher at the Association for Sustainable and Responsible Investment in Asia. “In terms of the importance of government agendas, growth and competitiveness of the country is their main agenda,” she says. “However the government is understanding the pollution issues and all we can do is to put pressure for better disclosure and regulations. It is a first step and a good start.”

China is the world’s fourth largest economy today and dubbed as the “world’s factory” for consumer goods. So while it revels in its economic growth and financial fortunes, it remains to be seen how fast the emerging role of the public will tackle the problems of environmental damage and protection.

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