China Green GDP Figures Withheld


A garbage dump on the edge of Poyang Lake, China's largest freshwater lake. Photo: AFP/Mark Ralston

China’s campaign to curb pollution has sparked a new round of bureaucratic infighting as officials try to keep the latest damage estimates out of public view.

On March 23, the official China Daily reported that the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) has asked the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) not to release its figures on the costs of environmental damage to the country’s economy.

In Sept., SEPA released its first “Green GDP” figures, showing that damage from pollution cost China 511.8 billion yuan (U.S. $64.4 billion) in 2004. This figure equaled nearly one-third of China’s conventional GDP growth of 9.5 percent for the year.

Now the NBS has urged that new data be given only to China’s State Council for policymaking purposes.

“Experience has shown that both the theory and the methodology of Green GDP accounting are not sophisticated enough,” the NBS said in a letter cited by China Daily . “There are lots of difficulties in the pilot project.”

Experience has shown that both the theory and the methodology of Green GDP accounting are not sophisticated enough.

Sending ‘wrong message’

In interviews with Radio Free Asia, experts were divided on whether officials are seeking to improve the accuracy of Green GDP figures or trying to hide bad results.

Pablo Gutman, a senior policy adviser at the Washington-based World Wildlife Fund, said that announcing the Green GDP program and then refusing to publish the results will send the “wrong message” to China’s public.

“It’s the message that the country’s authorities are not willing to face part of the reality of what’s going on in the country,” Gutman said. “And one would say that it’s not the wise thing to do, and it’s not the best way to confront reality simply by not looking at it.”

“That doesn’t change what’s going on in real life.”

Gutman cited several methodologies for environmental accounting, so there may always be arguments about the accuracy of results. But if SEPA can establish consistent measurements, he said, it can provide a picture of the country’s progress in controlling pollution.

Gutman added that China’s Green GDP program is important because of the country’s share in worldwide environmental problems due to high rates of economic growth.

“There’s a large concern outside China, of course, and in the environmental movement, of course, but also inside China that these very fast rates of growth are really putting pressure on the environment, not only on the Chinese environment but in all Asia’s environment.”

Accurate data needed

The purpose of Green GDP calculations is to raise public awareness and to focus environmental efforts, said Gutman, so a decision to keep the results from reaching the public could only be seen as a setback.

But Daniela Salaverry, co-director of the China program at Pacific Environment, a San Francisco-based nongovernmental organization, said that officials may simply not want to publish information they consider inaccurate.

“They’re prioritizing these issues of the environment and consumption and energy and growth, and so they want to make sure that they’re putting accurate information out there to the public,” Salaverry said.

Salaverry said that whether China’s government decides to release the new figures, the public is getting the message that China’s environmental damage is linked to its double-digit rates of economic growth.

“It’s certainly a great amount of damage, and the government acknowledges that,” Salaverry said.

“They’re not hiding that information, but they’re not necessarily presenting it in the way that international people with their perspectives are looking for.”

Original reporting by Michael Lelyveld. Edited for the Web by Richard Finney.


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