| China: Costs from Pollution Exceed $200 Billion Per Year|
June 5, 2006
Beijing — China's pollution problems cost the country more than $200
billion a year, a top official said Monday as he called for better legal
protection for grassroots groups so they can help clean up the environment.
Damage to China's environment is costing the government roughly 10% of the
country's gross domestic product, estimated Zhu Guangyao, deputy chief of
the State Environmental Protection Agency. China's GDP for 2005 was $2.26 trillion.
Despite the efforts of half a million environmental officials in his
agency and other organizations, China's environmental picture is worsening
and "allows for no optimism," he said as he released a report that
described China's environmental situation as "grave."
"Water, land and soil pollution is serious," the report said. "The Chinese
government will mobilize all forces available to solve the pollution
problems that are causing serious harm to people's health."
Zhu noted that some local officials are reluctant to help — and sometimes
even work against — the central government's environmental protection efforts.
After more than 25 years of breakneck growth, China is in the midst of an
environmental crisis that has continued to worsen as local authorities
fail to enforce regulations meant to counter severe air and water pollution.
Zhu said that his agency is hopeful that non-government environmental
groups could play "important roles in promoting or pushing governments to
solve the environmental problems."
He said the importance of NGOs in China lags behind other countries, and
that the environmental watchdog wants to play a more important role in
developing "legislation to secure their interests and existence in China."
Environmental groups said such legal protection would be a tremendous
help, but cautioned that the environmental agency doesn't have the power
to create or pass such a law without the support of top leaders, which was
far from guaranteed.
Currently, activists and others who try to blow the whistle on polluting
industries are often ignored or suppressed by corrupt local officials who
risk losing income if they try to shut down factories.
Some officials also fear being disciplined by the central government if
their districts are found in violation of environmental standards.
"China has not had the political environment for NGOs to work
independently," said Zhu Chunqian, the head of conservation operations at
World Wildlife Fund China. "I think at this moment there is no protection."
Greenpeace's government and public affairs officer, Yu Jie, said local
officials remain too focused on economic growth at the expense of the
environment and that outspoken activists risk retaliation if they are seen
to be too meddlesome.
"If an NGO has legal status then it can use legal weapons to protect
itself" and the local environment, said Yu.