From a public relations standpoint, it didn’t look good. In the space of less than a month, China had quashed two potentially embarrassing environmental reports that would have said what most people already know: This is a country 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.
Then, late last week, the government announced that it was canceling plans to publish a “green GDP” report that would have calculated the cost of pollution to China’s rapidly growing economy, as measured by its gross domestic product.
The decisions, on their face, appeared to suggest reluctance at the top of China’s government to acknowledge the seriousness of environmental degradation that has caused the worst air pollution in the world, and water pollution that has left millions of people without local sources of potable water.
Chinese and Western experts, however, said Monday that authorities might have acted for reasons not readily apparent to casual observers. They said 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 coordinator for the World Bank office in Beijing, who worked with China’s environmental protection agency on both of the reports. “And 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.”
On paper, many environmentalists agree, China has some of the strongest pollution control policies in the world. Its effort to calculate the environmental toll on its GDP was bold by international standards. Environmentalists have failed to persuade many developed nations, including the United States, to undertake such an accounting.
China released a “green GDP” report for the first time in September and was preparing a second annual report when the decision was made to spike it. The report last year calculated the cost of pollution at $67.7 billion, or just over 3% of China’s gross domestic product
Despite relatively strong laws, enforcement of China’s environmental policies is patchy at best, largely left to provincial governments that have a stake in local economic growth, regardless of the environmental cost. And it is those officials, some experts believe, who may have put the brakes on the recent reports.
Wang Jinnan, a senior expert at the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning who played a lead role in the GDP report, was quoted Monday in the Beijing News as saying the effort had drawn fierce opposition from local officials eager to maintain growth.
Taking into account “the costs of environmental damage would lead to a huge fall in the quality of economic growth in some areas,” Wang said. “At present, many areas still place GDP above all else, and when such thinking dominates, the size of resistance to a green GDP can well be imagined.”
Christian Averous, who recently wrote a report on China’s environment for the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, agreed that the central government appears to have limited control over how environmental policies are carried out.
“There is an implementation gap concerning environmental policies in China,” he said. “A number of laws and policies are not implemented, and this is partly due to territorial governments’ attitudes.”
Averous added that his report was written at the request of the Chinese government and that he faced no pressure to censor or withhold his findings. The report included estimates from earlier reports that 600,000 people a year could die prematurely by 2020 because of urban air pollution and offered 51 specific recommendations for cleaning up the nation’s environment.
The Chinese government has pledged to adopt the recommendations, Averous said. They include holding local leaders more accountable to the central government and giving China’s environmental protection agency the status of a full government ministry.
Liebenthal said the Chinese government objected to the inclusion of mortality figures in the recent World Bank report because they were based on new and controversial methodology. According to an article in the Financial Times newspaper, the report would have said that about 750,000 people in China die prematurely each year, mainly because of urban air pollution.
“The statistics are problematic,” Liebenthal said. “There are legitimate scientific arguments about the appropriateness and accuracy of the methodology.”
But Liebenthal said he believed that it would be in China’s best interests to publish the data, particularly on the environmental costs to the economy.
“On the whole, I think this kind of research is important for China to do,” he said. “China is an important country, pollution is important in China, and it is important for the country to understand the extent to which its economic progress is maybe less than it seems because of some environmental side effects that need to be taken into account.”