When China’s central government delayed publishing Green GDP figures because of pressure from local authorities, international organizations quickly took advantage of the situation by publicly giving awesome numbers about the cost of pollution.
This year alone, the World Bank, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) have published bleak reports on China’s environment.
The OECD report, released on July 17, estimates that health care costs could account for 13% of GDP by 2020, with pollution causing 600,000 premature deaths. It also says that pollution creates social tensions and harms China’s international image.
Despite the gloomy tone, the central government applauded the OECD report. Zhou Jian, deputy director of the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) described it as “authoritative and scientific.”
Yet the issue of the missing Green GDP figures remains. The Green GDP number for 2005, calculated by deducting the cost of pollution from economic growth, has long been ready but is still under wraps.
All there is to go on is the data from 2004, which showed pollution had cost China US$64 billion or about 3% of its GDP that year.
According to Wang Jin’an, chief engineer at the China Environmental Planning Institute, the numbers have not been released because some local authorities disagree with how the calculations are done. An environmental studies professor involved in the calculation, who asked not to be named, suggested that the dispute emerged because some provinces would see negative growth if the costs of pollution were subtracted from their GDP.
Even without an official economic measure of pollution, the damage can still be quantified or given context.
For example, Beijing residents pay for their prosperity by living in a “dome” of pollution for more than half the year, said Han Zhixiong, an official at the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau.
This kind of air pollution can trigger or worsen respiratory and cardiovascular diseases as well as create fertility problems and increase cancer risks. The WHO estimates China’s annual death toll from air pollution-related diseases at 656,000.
The World Bank report put the total cost of air and water pollution in China in 2003 at US$46.4 billion or about 2.68% of GDP that year.
Then there are social costs to consider. Chen Xiwen, an economist at the State Council’s Development Research Center, told the OECD that 20% of petitions made by farmers to the central government last year were environment-related.
Wang Ping, an environment professor at Beijing Business and Technology University, had equally troubling news about the threat of pollution to Chinese exports.
“If a country is branded with pollution, it is natural that foreigners will hesitate to buy its food, feed and pharmaceuticals,” he said.