China’s attempts to project a new “green” image suffered a serious blow last week when it was revealed that an attempt to estimate the environmental cost of its runaway economic growth was put on hold indefinitely.
In a briefing to local newspapers, the scientist given the task of calculating China’s “green GDP” said the project was effectively killed by political opposition.
Wang Jinnan, the chief engineer of the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning and team leader of the project, said: “Why they have not been published yet is because there is a big disagreement about both the content and how to publish it between environment administration and the statistics bureau.”
“If such a situation goes on, our project team might be dismissed, which is what we want least of all.”
His denunciation of the barriers in his way is another challenge to the leadership of President Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, the prime minister, who staked their domestic and international reputations on readjusting China’s economic model to increase consciousness of its social and environmental consequences.
Earlier this month, it was revealed that the government was trying to stop the World Bank from publishing details of the number of deaths caused by water and air pollution in China every year.
Officials also rejected a study by Dutch scientists suggesting that China’s carbon emissions, the key component of global warming, overtook America’s.
Despite the appalling environmental consequences of China’s growth, with its cities listed as the most polluted in the world and riots protesting the poisonous fumes and effluent poured out by factories, the government also garnered praise for its stated determination to tackle the problem.
“The Beijing Consensus,” a study by Britain’s Foreign Policy Center think tank three years ago, highlights the move to “green GDP” as the reason developing countries should prefer a Chinese, rather than American, economic model.
According to the theory, China could take a more “holistic” approach to growth by publishing a GDP (gross domestic product) figure that deducts the potential costs of pollution to give a more realistic account of how much richer the country was getting.
Figures were published last year for 2004, to great acclaim, though they showed annual pollution costs to be a huge $71 billion, or 3 percent of the total economy.
But this year, published growth figures continued to omit social elements, and growth soared to a point that some economists think could lead to a crash.
Last week’s quarterly figures said China’s economy is growing by 11.9 percent a year, almost four points ahead of the government’s target.
Mr. Wang said that as well as opposition from the National Statistics Bureau, local officials — whose promotions are often directly linked to their success in promoting economic growth — also put pressure on the government to stop publication of the green figures.
“In my view, the shock caused locally by green GDP and the fact it’s so sensitive only proves how effective a measure it is,” Mr. Wang said, adding that he would continue studying the figures even if they were never published.
His admission of defeat was met with poorly concealed delight by the National Statistics Bureau. A spokesman pointed to a recent speech by its director, Xie Fuzhan, in which he said that “green GDP” was not an internationally recognized accounting figure.