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Visions Of A Green China Lost In The Haze

A scooter rider battles through the smog and haze in Shanghai. Photo courtesy AFP.
by Dan Martin
Beijing (AFP) March 26, 2007
Premier Wen Jiabao's call for China to care for the environment shows the issue has finally become a top priority, experts said, but they warned prospects for success were as hazy as a Chinese skyline. China is today one of the world's most polluted countries. More than 70 percent of rivers and lakes are polluted and at least 300 million people lack access to clean water, according to government reports.

Air pollution in cities affects the health of millions, while the fast-modernising nation of 1.3 billion people is consuming ever-more energy, making it a greater factor in global climate change.

For years Chinese authorities have paid scant regard for the environment as they pursued breakneck economic growth, with factories allowed to discharge almost anything into the environment in the name of jobs.

But in his annual report to the country's legislature on Monday, Wen said growth at any cost was no longer an option, and the entire nation must pay more attention to the environment.

Wen called for renewed efforts to hit goals -- which were missed last year -- to cut major pollutants by two percent and energy consumption per unit of GDP by four percent each year to 2010.

But grassroots resistance, a vastly ineffective regulatory system and persistent corruption will remain stubborn obstacles, analysts said.

"Hitting those targets is going to be a very tough task for the Chinese government and the question remains, can they do it?" said Yang Fuqiang, Beijing representative of The Energy Foundation, a US-based NGO.

Clearing the air will require Beijing to change attitudes in the far-flung provinces, where heavily polluting coal-fired power plants and other industrial facilities based on "1940s" technology continue to proliferate, Yang said.

"The success or failure of any of this depends on what happens at the local level," he said.

Wen called on Monday for tighter enforcement of environmental standards.

But analysts said China's broad-brush laws are woefully short on enforcement and will require major revisions by a notoriously slow-moving lawmaking process to give them teeth.

"(Wen's speech) is a good start, showing the government recognises the problem," said Yang Ailun, a Greenpeace climate and energy campaigner based in Beijing.

"But if they are serious about reform they have much more to do. Targets mean nothing without good enforcement and implementation."

However the environment cannot be the only priority for China's ruling Communist Party, as it is anxious to keep the economic good times rolling to maintain its support base.

"The challenge for the future is how to ensure a level of environmental sustainability that also allows for (economic growth). This is very much an economic and social issue," said Kishan Khoday of the United Nations Development Programme's Beijing office.

Analysts said China needed to pursue an aggressive mix of renewable energy, creative market-based mechanisms that promote conservation, greater international energy cooperation, major technology investment, and politically painful fuel taxes to encourage energy thrift.

Wen referred to these ideas on Monday but they are far easier said than done.

The first step will be for the government to make good on Wen's target of eight percent economic growth, following more than two decades of near double-digit expansions, the Energy Foundation's Yang said.

"If growth is any higher than that, there will be no way to reduce energy consumption," Yang said.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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China Backs Away Fom Green Plan
Beijing (AFP) March 23, 2007
China is backing away from a new requirement designed to pressure local governments to clean up the environment after encountering resistance to the plan, state media reported on Friday.

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