It’s Not Easy Being Green

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The China Daily reported today that the country had failed to meet targets in its efforts to save energy and curb pollution in 2006. Nationally, China was supposed to reduce its energy use per unit of GDP by 4% and pollution emissions by 2% last year. Instead, in most of the country, energy consumption and pollution went up. The State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) estimated that both chemical oxygen demand in water (which is a measure of the amount of gunk in the water that eats up oxygen that would normally sustain life in a river or lake) and sulfur dioxide emmissions in the air had increased by 2% over the past 12 months.

None of this comes as any great surprise. As Simon Elegant noted a few days ago, you don’t need high tech instruments to see how polluted this place is. In September I watched people pulling dead fish by the bucket out of a river where paper mills had recently discharged their effluents (chemical oxygen demand in action.) A few weeks later, the Yellow River turned fushia. And it’s not like China’s leaders are denying the environmental situation is a problem. I haven’t done a systematic study of this, but it did seem like in 2006 Chinese officials were beginning to speak more frankly about how bad things really are–are at least in comparison to previous years.

These admissions are obviously a major step in the right direction, particularly in a country where the public still hears a lot more about targets that are met, or surpassed, than the ones that are missed. Frankness still counts for a lot with people–both Chinese and foreign–who expect China’s leaders to be less transparent. But the thing is that, as these new statistics show, simply admitting there’s a problem and asking officials to try to do their utmost (a favorite phrase in Beijing’s exhortations to the provinces), even setting ambitious targets, none of this is going to get the job done.

What local officials need if they’re going to get serious about cleaning up is real incentives, not just moral suasion. Last month I attended an annual environmental awards ceremony in Beijing sponsored by SEPA and a bunch of other national level government bodies. Among those honored was a team economists who had put together a system for measuring “Green GDP” at SEPA’s behest. The idea behind the system is to add environmental criteria to the measurement of a local government’s performance and stop tying promotion of officials to economic growth alone. SEPA’s a very weak arm of the Chinese government and this idea has yet to gain traction with other more powerful ministries. But some version of it really needs to be adopted soon. Until something major changes in China’s environmental governance system, until more people are made personally accountable for dead fish and red rivers, the country’s going to keep missing these targets. –SJ