Monday, Mar 27, 2017, 8:30 PM CST – China

Politics

Environmental Index

Measuring Up

Following a policy pledge to protect the country’s environment from irresponsible developers, China’s leadership is trying to set up a “green index” to hold officials accountable for environmental damage that occurs on their watch

As the public has become increasingly concerned about China’s numerous and well-documented environmental problems, such as declining air and water quality due to decades of pollution, environmental issues have become one of the central leadership’s policy priorities.

In addition to the outcry over deteriorating air quality across the country, a recently released report shows that the country’s air, water and soil are plagued by environmental threats.

The 2014 Report on the State of the Environment in China, released on June 4, 2015, says air quality in less than 10 percent of 161 cities included in the national air quality monitoring system met national standards, which are much more lenient than those of the World Health Organization (WHO). At the same time, 29.8 percent of Chinese cities suffered from acid rain, and water quality readings from 61.5 percent of 4,896 underwater monitoring stations was deemed “polluted” or “seriously polluted.” In addition, 31.1 percent of China’s land is suffering from soil erosion.

For many years it has been argued that a major factor underlying China’s severe environmental problems is the existing appraisal system for government officials, which overwhelmingly favors meeting economic growth targets when evaluating their performances. That’s why the government recently moved to reform the appraisal system and proposed including a new “green index” in their calculations.

Audit

On July 1, the Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms, a newly established agency headed by Chinese President Xi Jinping, released a regulation on how to make Party cadres and government officials accountable if they “damage the ecological environment,” along with a tentative plan to conduct a “natural resources audit” on officials leaving their posts, regardless of whether they are retiring, being promoted or being removed.

It is argued that including what many dub a “green index” or “environmental GDP” into the appraisal system would revamp local officials’ priorities and compel them to change their current policies and practices in order to become more environmentally friendly.

The idea was first touched on during the Party’s Third Plenum held in the fall of 2013, when China’s leadership visualized a greener China and vowed to establish an “ecological civilization.” In the keynote reform plan launched at that time, the Party pledged that it would establish a nationwide “natural assets balance sheet.”

Many envision this “balance sheet” to compare simple index numbers that measure different environmental factors, similar to how an index of economic growth is calculated using variables such as trade balance and employment rate. Such an index would be used to evaluate the performance of local officials as a part of a grander plan to protect the environment.

In past years similar programs have been launched in more than 10 provinces, but it appears that efforts to quantify the environmental quality of a region have encountered some serious technical problems.

Difficulties

A report released by the audit office of the eastern coastal province of Shandong revealed daunting challenges in pushing forward an environmental audit of the province’s marine resources.

“Not only does it take at least three to five years to detect any major changes in coastal sea water quality resulting from industrial pollution, it is also very difficult to find out who is responsible given the mobility of the oceanic current,” reads the report.

Shandong has witnessed a serious rise in pollution of its Yellow Sea coastal waters in recent years, mostly due to agricultural and industrial activity. Algal blooms, sudden increases in volumes of algae that obstruct sunlight and suffocate marine life, have become an annual occurrence over several summers. One of the largest algal blooms ever recorded in China struck the region in 2013, covering an area of 28,900 square kilometers.

According to the 2014 environmental report, water samples taken by 18.6 percent of 301 seawater monitoring stations were found to be “seriously polluted.” Most of these sites are close to major river deltas. As sources of pollution can be hundreds of miles upstream from delta regions, it is almost impossible to hold specific officials accountable for the extensive pollution.

Even in inland regions, experts and environmental scientists who are attempting to quantify environmental changes are up against complex challenges.

“It is easy to calculate the area of a forest, but it is very hard to measure its quality,” said Ecological Society of China vice president Peng Shaolin, who leads a pilot program that is developing an environmental balance sheet in Shenzhen.

“While the area of a forest may remain unchanged, its quality, such as the level of biodiversity, can vary greatly,” Peng told NewsChina, “Even if it is technically feasible to measure, it may be too expensive to allow [the measurement] to be conducted on a regular basis and on a massive scale.”

Institutional Barrier

Moreover, Peng pointed out that there has been confusion among officials regarding some of the program’s fundamental concepts. “Currently, the government has been using terms such as ‘natural resources,’ ‘environment,’ and ‘ecological system’ interchangeably, but technically these concepts are very different and require different scientific approaches,” Peng told NewsChina.

According to Peng, the government should make a decision on whether to concentrate on the “environment” or the “ecosystem.” The former would mean that the program would focus on air quality, water quality and other environmental aspects that impact daily life, while the latter would require a more comprehensive approach aimed at improving the overall health of China’s ecological system.

Existing disagreements over the interpretation of the central government’s intentions are further compounded by the overlapping and fragmented administration that regulates natural resources and the environment. Currently, environmental administration is divided among a number of central agencies, including the Ministry of Environmental Protection, the Ministry of Agriculture, the State Forestry Administration, the Ministry of Water Resources and the Ministry of Land and Resources, each of which have different motivations when it comes to potential development of an environmental index.

“How would we calculate the impact of turning forest into farmland or an urban park?” asked Peng. While the Sate Forestry Administration may consider this a negative, the Ministry of Agriculture may deem it a positive.

In an environmental forum held last September, Yang Weimin, vice director of the Central Leading Group on Financial and Economic Affairs, told the media that the government is considering setting up a new, centralized agency to reform the convoluted hierarchy that administers environmental resources and also to coordinate the policies and actions of relevant ministries. But so far, there have been no further reports regarding this proposal.

According to Peking University associate professor Wang Wenzhang, even if all of the institutional barriers were overcome, the effects of this proposed “environmental audit” may still be limited because officials may not be concerned about what happens after they leave office. While official tenure is typically five years, many environmental issues can take a much longer time to come to light. For example, the contamination of tap water that struck the city of Lanzhou in April 2014 was partially caused by corroded pipes that were installed in the 1950s and due to be replaced more than a decade previously.

As this “green index” has yet to be developed, it remains unclear to what extent it will be able to reverse China’s environmental crisis. But as these environmental problems undermine China’s growth, pose a long-term threat to public health and continue to cause an outcry over the slow pace of reform, the government now has limited time to deliver major change. 

Currently, the government has been using terms such as ‘natural resources,’ ‘environment,’ and ‘ecological system’ interchangeably, but technically these concepts are very different and require different scientific approaches

 

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