China Claims Progress on Pollution

China cites progress in pollution reduction drive as experts urge greater efforts.
By Michael Lelyveld
2009.03.16


BOSTON--China made progress in reducing energy waste and emissions last year, government officials said last week while acknowledging it may be hard to meet targets for 2010.

In his work report to the annual session of the National People's Congress, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said China had cut its energy consumption per unit of gross domestic product by 4.59 percent in 2008.

The index measures how efficiently the country uses energy to produce goods and services. In 2006, Wen set a goal of slashing energy waste by 20 percent during the 11th Five-Year Plan, running through 2010, as part of a campaign to slow environmental damage from China's building boom and runaway industrialization during the past decade.

Over the last three years, China has lowered its energy intensity index by 10 percent, or half of the five-year target, Wen said.

Despite this progress, "more efforts must be made before China could reach its goal of reducing energy intensity by 20 percent," the official Xinhua news agency said.

Wen has also set a 2010 target of cutting major pollutants by 10 percent, compared with 2005 levels. Last year, China reduced emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2) by nearly 6 percent from 2007 and almost 9 percent during the plan period, he said.

The figures suggest improvement in curbing hazardous gas from burning coal, a cause of acid rain.

China also decreased its chemical oxygen demand (COD), a measure of water pollution, by 4.4 percent last year and 6.6 percent over three years. Beyond the numbers, the targets and the reductions are a measure of the government's response to pollution, which has been one of the public's major concerns.

Similar targets

In a Radio Free Asia interview, Daniela Salaverry, co-director of the China program at Pacific Environment, a San Francisco-based nongovernmental organization, noted that the government set similar targets for pollutants in the previous Five-Year Plan but failed to meet those goals.

Still, she argued, the effort is worthwhile.

"It's important to have something to strive for in terms of a target for emissions across the board," Salaverry said. "Even though China hasn't met those targets in the last Five-Year Plan, having those numbers out there is worth striving for."

Much of China's environmental damage has come from burning over 2.7 billion tons of high-sulfur coal per year to fuel heavy industry and generate power. In 2007, a joint study by the U.S. and Chinese environmental protection agencies found that investments in cutting SO2 emissions would be repaid in improved public health and crop yields by a ratio of over 5 to 1.

Last week, a report by the international consulting firm McKinsey & Company found that China could dramatically reduce its reliance on coal for electricity from 81 to 34 percent by 2030 with investments in solar, wind, nuclear, and other sources of power.

The initiative would be part of a range of improvements including energy-saving buildings, efficient lighting, waste recovery, and electric vehicles that could cost 150-200 billion euros (1.3-1.7 trillion yuan, $190-254 billion) per year, the consultants said.

Conservation measures

Experts have voiced concern that China's 4-trillion-yuan($586-billion) economic stimulus package will set back environmental efforts with new construction projects that use energy-intensive materials like steel and cement.

But last week, Zhang Ping, minister of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), pledged that 210 billion yuan would be devoted to conservation measures, Xinhua reported. The package "precludes boosting economic growth at the cost of environment," the news agency said.

Although the environmental spending represents only about 5 percent of the stimulus package, Salaverry said the government is gradually getting the message that more balance is needed in economic development.

"Certainly, China has been recognizing the environmental implications of its rapid growth over the past several decades," she said. "It's trying to do what it can to slow down that growth so that it's more sustainable economically over the long term, but also so it has fewer negative impacts on the environment."

Salaverry said the government faces tough choices with the stimulus program as it tries to create jobs and maintain social stability while not adding to China's pollution burdens. But public concern about job losses has not lessened the pressure for a better environment, she said.

"I think that people still expect environmental improvements despite the economic situation," Salaverry said.

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