‘Growth First’ Mentality Undermines War on Pollution

China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection a new report on Tuesday, revealing that almost 60% of the groundwater it tested last year rated as ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’, and that nearly 60% of the cities which measure air quality according to current standards failed to meet them. While acknowledging “extremely serious” trends and a “grim” situation for the rural environment, the report hailed 2012 as a turning point towards more sustainable development. But at South China Morning Post, Li Jing writes of signs that economic growth still comes first, undermining efforts to combat pollution:

After most cities in northern China choked on thick smog for most of the winter, the mainland’s environment ministry has come up with its own theme for World Environment Day today – “breathing the same air and working together”.

[…] The mainland theme ties in with the regular rhetoric of senior environmental officials and even top leaders that the country faces a prolonged and arduous battle – 20 years or more by some estimates – to remedy its severe air pollution and that city dwellers should accept greater responsibility by driving less and eating less barbecued food.

But the central government’s commitment to cleaning up the toxic smog has been called into question by the State Council’s failure to approve a highly anticipated national action plan on air pollution control in time for the World Environment Day.

[…] A draft was ready for State Council review as early as April, and contained some elements that help curb air pollution. But the delay suggests the plan could have met strong opposition from other ministries, which are heavily influenced by state-owned enterprises (SOEs) or local authorities focused on economic growth. [Source]

The slogan “breathing the same air and working together” seems pitched to dispel thoughts of officials living in isolated bubbles of purified air and specially farmed organic vegetables. It echoes Kunming mayor Li Wenrong’s recent assurance to protesters that he intends to live in the city into retirement, and therefore shares a stake in the local environment. Vocal public opposition to a nearby PX plant made the city an environmental flashpoint last month, eventually securing a promise that the project’s Environmental Impact Assessment will be released to the public.

In cases involving nuclear power, large investments or particular environmental sensitivity, EIAs have also been sent to the Ministry of Environmental Protection for approval. But this central supervision may soon be a thing of the past, SCMP’s Li Jing reports:

Details of the plan have not yet been unveiled, but Environment Minister Zhou Shengxian said in February that his ministry would “transfer approval power for environmental reviews to lower-level governments and simplify procedures, in a bid to cut red tape and improve efficiency”, Xinhua reported. He said the move was in line with the new leadership’s call for a reduction in government interference.

[…] Calling the plan a “pollution formula”, Li Bo, a senior adviser to the environmental advocacy group Friends of Nature, said it could eventually lead to a loosening of environmental supervision across the mainland, with growth-obsessed local governments likely to authorise projects that they viewed as economically viable while disregarding environmental concerns, further exacerbating pollution woes.

[…] Deputy minister Pan Yue openly challenged the proposal to hand over such powers at a ministry meeting, a source close to the ministry said.

“Pan argued at the meeting that reviewing environmental impact assessment reports was the only policy tool the ministry had that could really bite in terms of preventing pollution,” the source said. [Source]