China's Green Spending Falls Short

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Ted Aljibe / AFP / Getty

The sun sets in Macau, China.

The good news out of China is that the People's Republic will be spending $200 billion on cleaning up the air and water pollution that has marred its rapid economic growth. The bad news is that sum is virtually unchanged from the last budget and is unlikely to make a difference.

The announcement this week of the government's long-postponed plans for environmental protection for 2006-2010 was scrutinized by environmentalists for signs of whether the country can finally get its act together. Zou Shoumin, director of the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning and one of the plan's authors, told the state-run Xinhua news service that the government will spend $85 billion on cleaning up water pollution, $80 billion on air pollution and $28 billion on solid waste. In total the cleanup costs will equal about 1.35% of China's GDP. That's slightly more than what China spent under the previous five-year plan.

However, the amount may well be short of what it will need to turn things around, says Wang Canfa, who heads the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims, a Beijing-based NGO. For China to begin serious cleanup it needs to spend 2% to 3% of GDP on environmental protection, he says. Even the money China now spends could be used more efficiently, argues Wen Bo, the China program manager for Pacific Environment, a San Francisco-based NGO. "In the past many such huge investments didn't result in real cleanups. They became a hotbed for corruption," he says.

The State Council's plan puts new emphasis on fining polluters, monitoring local governments and controlling greenhouse gases. The government administrative body also called for a 10% reduction in sulfur dioxide emissions, the same amount that was proposed but not reached in the previous five-year plan.

Though it cited improvements in surface water and urban air quality, the State Council's announcement admitted that from 2000-2005, "environmental protection continued to lag behind economic development," and added that violation of environmental laws and inadequate enforcement were common.

"I think that's certainly a good sign that the Chinese government is taking more concrete steps in reducing carbon emissions and trying to fulfill its promise on climate change issues," says Wen. "They are learning and becoming more aware. They also realize the current economic development pattern is taking a heavy toll on environment."

But, Wen adds, Beijing's efforts are hobbled by the government's sensitivity to reporting on the environment by journalists and the increasing number of "green" non-profits based in China. "Most environmental problems have their roots in government mismanagement and corruption by individual government officials," he says. "Local governments are so afraid of any individual or organization that's able to bring an issue to light."

Local officials' blind pursuit of economic development at the expense of the environment is considered one of the main sources of China's pollution woes. An official effort to begin calculating a "green GDP," which incorporates the cost of environmental damage in provincial economic growth statistics, was seen as one way to alleviate that problem. If local officials ignored the environment, it would show up in numbers that their bosses in Beijing could monitor. But this summer the drive for a "green GDP" collapsed because of the difficulty in placing a value on environmental preservation.

For now Beijing seems content to emphasize only government checks to ensure that those officials don't ignore local polluters. The environmental protection plan says that major toxic emissions will be reported every six months. In addition, checks will be carried out in 2008 and 2010 to ensure the plan is being executed. No details were listed on how the requirements would be enforced.