Transparency And The Environment

Related entries: Business Issues, Environment, General, Risk & Law

The environment is high on the government agenda, as President Hu Jintao made clear recently, but there is still much to be done. The FT notes an OECD report that has some scary conclusions:

    “China’s air pollution will cause 20m people a year to fall ill with respiratory diseases, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimated on Tuesday. The Paris-based club of industrialised countries said China was not doing enough to combat widespread and serious environmental degradation and should “redouble efforts” to implement its laws and policies.

    By 2020, the report forecast, pollution would cause “600,000 premature deaths in urban areas, 9m person-years of work lost due to pollution-related illness, 20m cases of respiratory illness a year, 5.5m cases of chronic bronchitis and health damage” which could cost 13 per cent of gross domestic product. “

While Beijing may question the data, a quick look up at the sky can say a lot more than a thousand words in a report. There are already many expats who avoid postings in parts of the mainland (and even Hong Kong) due to the impact that bad air could have on them and their kids, but at least they have choices about where to locate.

Another FT report makes the point that transparency in relation to environmental and health issues (and problems) could have a beneficial impact on development. Much more so than the knee-jerk cover-ups that have so often been seen (in relation to SARS, chemical spills etc.). Unfortunately there is still some way to go on this front, according to the FT.

    “As the Financial Times has reported, the original [World Bank report on pollution in China] found that more than 750,000 Chinese die prematurely each year, mainly from air pollution.

    The State Environment Protection Agency and the health ministry told the World Bank to cut this from the published report because it was, in the words of an adviser involved in the study, “too sensitive and could cause social unrest”. Chinese officials were probably worried by the detailed breakdown of the worst places to live in China, which showed the most toxic cities clustered in the north-western coal belt.”

In response to these claims, Zhou Jian, deputy minister of the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), is reported in China Daily to have said that the report “was not very reliable”.

Of course, it is hard to know what is, and what is not, reliable when there is a lack of transparency. But given that one of his colleagues (director Zhou Shengxian) is also reported (in China Daily) to have said the following, one may assume he is well aware of the problems:

    “Hazards are everywhere, and environmental accidents are very likely to happen.”

    “We must get rid of all ‘bumpkin policies’ or protective local policies that sacrifice the environment for profit.”

At least the political pressure at the top is there – together with some new rules to tackle pollution in major lakes – but it comes down to local enforcement and / or accountability.

It is a battle of a balancing act that China cannot afford to lose.

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