Published on
the Sydney Morning Herald

China's Environmental Crisis: Hard Cash Beats Clean Air

Mitchell Landsberg

BEIJING -- From a public relations standpoint, it didn't look good. In the space of less than a month, China quashed two potentially embarrassing environmental reports that would have said what most people already know: the country is facing a costly and increasingly deadly environmental crisis.

First, in early July, reports surfaced that China had successfully lobbied the World Bank to redact portions of an environmental assessment that calculated how many people were likely to die prematurely as a result of air pollution.0725 03

Then last week the Government announced it was canceling plans to publish a "green GDP" report calculating the cost of pollution to the rapidly growing economy, as measured by its gross domestic product. The decisions appeared to suggest reluctance at the highest echelons of government to acknowledge the seriousness of environmental degradation that has caused the world's worst air pollution and water pollution that has left millions without local sources of potable water.

Chinese and Western experts, however, said on Monday the reluctance to publicize the country's environmental woes might have had more to do with political relations between the central government and provincial leaders than with a fear of airing dirty laundry.

"As soon as you develop a system like this, then you can do a ranking of environmental performance of local governments," said Andres Liebenthal, the environmental co-ordinator for the World Bank in Beijing. "So the ones that are highly ranked are fine, and the ones that are ranked low are not happy with it, so there's a pushback," he said.

China released a "green GDP" report for the first time in September and was preparing a second report when the decision was made to spike it. The report last year calculated the cost of pollution at just over 3 per cent of GDP.

Despite strong laws, enforcement of China's pollution policies is patchy and left to local governments that have a stake in their own economic growth, regardless of the environmental cost.

"Taking out the costs of environmental damage would lead to a huge fall in the quality of economic growth in some areas," said Wang Jinnan, an expert at China's Academy for Environmental Planning. "Many areas still place GDP above all else."

Copyright © 2007. The Sydney Morning Herald.

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