Greenpeace said in October that eight of the world’s top 500 companies, and 10 major Chinese companies, had violated China’s environmental laws by concealing pollution information after they were found guilty of irregularities in discharging sewage. What was more worrying, but not surprising, was Greenpeace’s assertion that local officials were complicit in turning a blind eye to the violations.
Despite China’s growing body of environmental legislation, significant obstacles stand in the way of its implementation. It is a fact worth remembering as the great and the good of the global environmental movement descend on Copenhagen in December to try and strike a new deal on climate change.
Much rests on the attitudes of China and the US, the world’s top two polluters. China certainly finds itself in a better political position ahead of the talks. While Washington struggles with a cap-and-trade bill, Beijing is at least being seen to take action: It is planning a carbon efficiency target; there will be more money and policies to promote renewable energy; and it is developing a voluntary domestic emissions reduction system.
Beijing may draw the line at giving a clear indication as to when and how its carbon dioxide emissions will begin to decline, but the measures it is taking are a step in the right direction.
Which brings us back to the obstacles to implementation. Most obviously, local officials in certain areas are still willing to ride roughshod over central government policy if it is in the interests of their careers (promotion may no longer depend on GDP alone, but a failure to create jobs, possibly leading to social unrest, doesn’t help) or perhaps their bank balances.
There are other issues, however. A pressing concern is the organization and regulation of China’s power sector. For all the breathless attention and foreign capital directed toward renewable energy, there is no guarantee that the electricity generated will reach an end user. China’s electricity grid is still playing catch-up – geographically and technologically. Then there is the wider and more fundamental obstacle of pricing. Beijing wants to keep energy affordable in the interests of economic growth and social harmony but there is a line between facilitating use and encouraging waste. Industries will only become energy efficient when they are forced to place a premium on energy.
Efforts are already being made to address these and other problems, with recent reports suggesting regulators are drafting real pricing reforms that would favor efficient producers. But are those efforts enough? Increasingly, this question is being asked by the Chinese people, first-hand witnesses to the environmental costs that accompany the pursuit of rapid economic growth.
Such public interest in environmental issues should be encouraged. One way or another, the public might be best positioned to hold the private and public sectors to account and thereby influence the pace of reform.