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Environmental Concerns Played Down

Watchdog fast-tracks projects

Environmental concerns played down amid drive to boost economy

Shi Jiangtao in Beijing – SCMP – Updated on Mar 12, 2009

The mainland’s environmental watchdog has accelerated its approval of large infrastructure projects to help government stimulus efforts, despite concerns about environmental degradation.

Since the release of the 4 trillion yuan (HK$4.5 trillion) stimulus package in November, the Ministry of Environmental Protection has approved 970 billion yuan in projects while putting on hold 14 others totalling 104 billion yuan, according to Vice-Minister Wu Xiaoqing.

He said the ministry had sped up mandatory environmental impact assessment for large projects that the State Council considered necessary to boost the economy.

“We have approved some projects as soon as we got their applications and effectively served the purpose of maintaining high growth in gross domestic product.”

But Mr Wu and Zhu Xingxiang, head of environmental assessment, declined to list the 14 suspended projects, covering petrochemical, steel, fire-powered plants and paper sectors, saying many of the projects needed further consideration of their potential environmental hazards.

“We have especially stressed in our meetings that we would rather be seen as the baddies today than as criminals by history, and we will most definitely keep the bar high,” Mr Wu said at a briefing on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress yesterday.

The mainland’s anti-pollution drive has suffered several heavy blows recently, with the much-touted “green GDP” project scrapped and a big cut in funding for pollution control.

While Beijing raised its budget for public housing, education and health care, it quietly cut spending earmarked for cutting pollution and energy waste in the revised stimulus package unveiled last week, from 350 billion yuan to 210 billion yuan.

The move has apparently taken many by surprise, including environment vice-minister Zhang Lijun.

“Is that true? No one has talked about the decrease, right?” he asked.

The country’s top leaders, including President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, have repeatedly promised that the stimulus effort would not further harm the battered environment. Analysts said the spending cut was largely the result of a political game among various party and interest groups, which showed environmentalism has been sidelined again.

While NPC chairman Wu Bangguo warned on Monday that cutting energy consumption by 20 per cent and reducing key water and air pollutants by 10 per cent by next year would be arduous, Mr Zhang said he was confident the job would get done in time.

He noted that last year’s pollution statistics, unveiled recently, were a lot better than expected, mostly because of the financial downturn, which closed many factories nationwide.

Beijing-based analyst Ma Jun said the stimulus package might strengthen local authorities’ obsession with GDP growth, despite the government’s rhetoric about changing the development model of “pollution first, cleanup later”.

“It may be commendable to cut red tape and make the approval process more efficient, but environmental standards must not be compromised,” he said.

“In the light of such risks, the government must increase transparency in the stimulus package and enlist public participation.”

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