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Putting a spin on pollution

Premier promises growth will not damage environment, but fails to report missed targets, prompting idea he wants to leave on a high note

Premier Wen Jiabao pledged yesterday that China’s pursuit of staggering economic expansion would not come at the cost of public health or the environment, in an apparent bid to placate simmering anger over widespread ecological degradation and key pollution-cut targets that were missed last year.

But his soothing words, offered at the opening of the last parliamentary gathering ahead of the leadership shake-up later this year, failed to cheer up mainland environmentalists, who pointed to a shroud of smog hovering over the capital yesterday and the bleak reality that an ecological crisis is behind the country’s economic success.

Speaking to nearly 3,000 deputies of the National People’s Congress, Wen said: “We will show the world with our actions that China will never seek economic growth at the expense of its ecological environment and public health.”

The premier, who will step down in March of next year, also vowed that Beijing was capable of striking a fine balance among economic growth, public welfare and conservation.

Although his remarks were hailed by state media as showcasing the government’s determination to curb pollution and heed public concerns, environmentalists said they also served as a grim reminder that China’s pollution woes had gone from bad to worse under his watch over the past decade.

Even Wen painted a rather gloomy picture. He admitted his government failed to meet several mandatory targets last year on emission controls and energy efficiency, which were among the commitments made by the world’s largest carbon emitter to help tackle global warming.

However, for the first time in the six years since his government rolled out a set of pollution and energy curbs, Wen did not give details about the missed targets in his annual policy address, rekindling accusations he may want to gloss over pollution problems and put a positive spin on his legacy before his retirement.

According to a report issued yesterday by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the missed annual targets included both energy intensity and carbon intensity, as well as nitrogen oxides, an air pollutant that contributes to ground-level ozone formation and can cause serious lung damage.

While energy consumption per unit of GDP, a measure of energy intensity, dropped by just 2 per cent, compared with an annual target of 3.5 per cent, details about curbing carbon intensity were omitted from the NDRC report.

Amid mounting international calls for China to make stronger efforts to cut its greenhouse gas emissions, Beijing promised last year that it would reduce carbon emissions per unit of gross domestic product by 17 per cent from the 2010 level by 2015.

“It is so disappointing that the government did not have the guts to confront its own failure [on the mandatory targets]. Apparently, the truth [about China’s pollution problems] is too bleak to be made public,” said Li Yan , a campaigner for Greenpeace China.

Despite the government’s repeated calls to rein in industrial polluters and to change the mainland’s economic growth model, energy-intensive and heavy-polluting industries have seen a rapid, robust expansion.

Li and other environmentalists said Wen and his government should be held responsible for this rise. Beijing last year lowered its pollution-cutting targets for the 12th five-year plan, after setbacks and strong resistance from local authorities.

In an effort to repair the damage, Wen yesterday urged a speedy compilation of plans to cap total energy consumption, which may see a ceiling on coal consumption in the next few years.

Environmentalists have said capping coal consumption would help reduce the country’s reliance on dirty coal and assist the push for a low-carbon economy.

Beijing has also made it a priority to expand clean-energy sectors, such as nuclear and hydropower facilities.

A recent environmental ministry-sanctioned study also confirmed widespread concerns that pollution had deteriorated at a faster rate than the efforts to reverse degradation.

Findings released last month showed that the estimated total cost of ecological degradation on the mainland in 2009, including the direct cost of pollution, was nearly 1.4 trillion yuan (HK$1.72 trillion), or 3.8 per cent of the mainland’s economic output. By comparison, the figure was 1.28 trillion yuan in 2008.

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