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Heading Off an Environmental Catastrophe

Author: Elizabeth C. Economy, C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies
January 29, 2003
South China Morning Post


China's spectacular economic growth - averaging 8 per cent or more annually over the past two decades - has improved the standard of living for hundreds of millions of citizens. Yet it has also affected the environment. There has been an increase in the demand for natural resources of all kinds, including water, land and energy. Forest resources have been depleted, leading to desertification, flooding and loss of species. Levels of water and air pollution have also increased.

The environmental degradation and pollution in China has also had ramifications for social and economic welfare, such as public health problems, mass migration, forced resettlement and even social unrest. During the 1990s, 20-30 million peasants were displaced by environmental degradation and, by 2025, at least 30-40 million more might need to relocate. Perhaps the most worrying consequence of pollution has been the range of public health problems. In 2000, the Ministry of Agriculture reported that almost 20 per cent of agricultural and poultry products in major industrial and mining districts and irrigated lands contained excessive levels of contamination.

The World Bank estimated that 7 per cent of all deaths in urban areas - about 178,000 people - could have been avoided if China met its own air pollution standards. In the late 1990s, China's Minister of Public Security Jia Chunwang said that "incidents that broke out over disputes over forests, grasslands and mineral resources" were among "four factors in social instability". Economists agree the total cost to the Chinese economy of environmental degradation and resource scarcity is 8-12 per cent of its annual gross domestic product. The greatest cost is in the health and productivity losses associated with urban air pollution, which the World Bank estimates at more than US$ 20 billion (HK$ 156 billion). Water scarcity in cities costs about US $ 14 billion in lost industrial output; in rural areas, water scarcity and pollution contribute to crop loss of about US$ 24 billion annually.

Although limited studies have been done on estimating the costs of these growing environmental threats, the World Bank has predicted that unless aggressive action is taken, the health costs of exposure to air pollution alone will triple to US$ 98 billion by the year 2020, with the costs of other environmental threats rising in tandem.

This does not mean that the Chinese leadership is ignoring the challenge of environmental protection. China's leaders have become increasingly cognisant of the need to improve the environment. The State Environmental Protection Administration, the Environmental Protection and Natural Resources Committee and the judiciary have established an extensive legal framework and bureaucratic infrastructure to address environmental concerns.

Over the past decade or so, there has been a significant increase in the skill level and capacity of staff at the core agencies behind environmental protection efforts.

There is a growing core of people seeking to integrate economic development with environmental protection. Still, the environmental bureaucracy is generally weak, and funding and personnel levels remain well below those necessary merely to keep the situation from deteriorating further.

There are only 300 full-time staff in China's State Environmental Protection Administration. In comparison, the US Environmental Protection Agency has more than 6,000. China's national budget for environmental protection is still limited to about 1.5 per cent of annual gross domestic product and many analysts believe much of this goes to non-environmental infrastructure projects and other programmes.

Chinese scientists have estimated that the country ought to spend at least 2 per cent of its gross domestic product annually on environmental protection merely to keep the situation from deteriorating. Much of the burden for environmental protection has come to rest outside the central government apparatus. Since about 1989, the Chinese leadership has devolved authority for environmental protection to the local level. The result, not surprisingly, is that wealthy regions with proactive leaders tend to fare very well, while other cities and towns lag far behind.

Shanghai routinely invests more than 3 per cent of its local revenues in environmental protection and has made substantial strides toward cleaning up its air and water pollution problems. Poorer regions, in contrast, continue to see their environment deteriorate, despite the overall improvement in the country's economy. They cannot count on assistance from the centre and are without sufficient local funds to invest. In addition, the central government closely monitors all World Bank activities to ensure money does not flow to poorer regions with a higher probability of default on their loans.

Perhaps most interestingly, China has opened the door to the involvement of non-governmental organisations and the media in environmental protection. By doing so, it hopes to fill the gap between its desire to improve the environment and its capacity to do so. At the same time, the government is careful to monitor the work of these groups to ensure environmentalism does not evolve into a push for broader political reform.

These groups do not lobby or criticise the central government publicly and tend to tackle less politically sensitive issues not directly involved in economic development. Most groups devote their efforts to nature conservation, species protection and environmental education. Others focus on urban renewal;

recycling activities and energy efficiency. They work hard to co-opt local government officials to support their work. Finally, there are activists with interests well outside the boundaries for non-governmental organisation activity established by the central government. Dai Qing, a top environmentalist, who opposes the Three Gorges Dam, falls into this category. She spent 10 months in prison for her book Yangtze! Yangtze! which exposes the political background, but continues her work from her home near Beijing.

The central government has also encouraged the media to develop programmes and publish articles focused on the environment. Newspapers, radio and television now accord a prominent position to environmental issues. Television, in particular, has become an integral part of environmental protection, often educating the public and sometimes spurring citizens to take action individually in the process. Two years ago, for example, a number of Chinese citizens in different cities began battery recycling programmes after watching a television show devoted to the topic.

The media also plays an important investigative role. In several cases, they have been responsible for alerting authorities in Beijing to local corruption or ineptitude, demonstrating that local governments are flouting environmental regulations or failing to carry out national environmental campaigns. At one television station in Beijing, people lined up outside the door of the studio to bring attention to environmental problems in the hope of having reporters investigate the issue.

China's legal system has long been criticised for its lack of transparency, ill-defined laws, weak enforcement capacity and poorly trained lawyers and judges. Over the past decade, however, the government has made great strides, passing more than 25 environmental protection laws and more than 100 administrative regulations, in addition to hundreds of environmental standards. While the quality of some laws could be improved, China's environmental lawmakers have demonstrated increasing sophistication in their understanding of how to negotiate and draft a technically sound and politically viable law. They also have taken to publishing some draft laws and regulations on their Web sites to invite public comment, an important improvement in the transparency of China's legal system. Still, numerous weaknesses in the judicial system remain, including the poor training of lawyers and judges, the intervention of external political or economic factors into the judicial decision-making process and the difficulty of enforcing poorly written laws. One bright spot is the emergence of legal environmental non-governmental organisations.

The most prominent of these is the Centre for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims in Beijing, headed by law professor Wang Canfa. The centre trains lawyers to engage in enforcing environmental laws, provides free legal advice and litigates environmental cases.

The rapidity and magnitude of the changes that are taking place in China and the complex way in which these changes are interacting and transforming the country leave both the Chinese leadership and the international community searching for an understanding of what China might look like over the next decade or two. While the environment has certainly moved on to the leadership's agenda over the past decade, it remains far below priorities such as economic development, maintaining social stability and enhancing military capabilities.

This suggests that, in many respects, environmental protection will continue to fall within the purview of local officials and the Chinese public. Positive trends in environmental education, the development of the legal system and the growth of civil society will all support the ability of Chinese citizens to seek redress or take action to respond to the government's lack of action.

Elizabeth Economy is director of Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. This article is adapted from testimony presented to the Congressional Executive Commission on China Roundtable on the Environment on Monday

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