- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 14, 2009

BEIJING | Environmental groups in China are worried that the country's efforts to stave off the global financial crisis could come at the cost of continued environmental degradation.

Groups such as Greenpeace, Friends of Nature, the World Wildlife Fund and the National Resources Defense Council say there is little transparency about China's promised $586 billion stimulus package.

“So far, according to what we see, we feel that it's a bit of a mystery about where this money will go,” said Sze Pang Cheung of Greenpeace China. “If the money goes into building more steel plants, that requires more energy and more raw materials and that's going to have a negative impact. But if the money goes into improving energy efficiency in the steel industry, that could have a positive impact.”

Although China is now the world's biggest emitter of carbon dioxide - which is called a key factor in climate change - the environmental budget in the stimulus package was cut by 40 percent during a recent revision and now comprises about 5 percent of the total, or $30.7 billion in spending over the next three years. Stimulus spending dedicated to transportation and power infrastructure is far larger: $219.5 billion.

Li Bo, director of Friends of Nature, issued a statement recently calling for greater transparency and for representatives of the National People's Congress (NPC), the country's parliament, to “closely follow the environmental oversight” of the stimulus package.

While environmentalists say they are disappointed in the budget cuts, they are more concerned that funds that could have gone to increasing efficiency and reducing pollution might go to high-polluting and energy-intensive industry as China struggles to achieve an annual growth rate of 8 percent, a figure considered key to ensuring social stability.

In fact, 20 provinces have set target growth rates of 10 percent or more, increasing worries that development targets will trump environmental goals.

“I think the key concern is whether the stimulus package will go back to heavily polluting industry,” said Zhang Shiqiu, deputy dean of the College of Environmental Sciences at Peking University. “China has already made an effort to reduce this kind of development.”

On March 24, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao told top officials at a meeting of the State Council that all levels of government needed to be vigilant about where the spending goes to increase transparency and avoid corruption, according to state television broadcaster CCTV.

At a Beijing news conference on the sidelines of the NPC last month, Wu Xiaoqing, vice minister of the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), said the ministry had turned down or postponed 14 heavily polluting stimulus package projects worth about $15.2 billion.

“We'd rather be seen as the bad guy at the moment than make our way into history as sinners,” Mr. Wu said. “We must be very strict in applying environmental standards.”

Environmental activists question whether MEP can be strict at the same time it is swift. In just three months, MEP approved $141.9 billion in stimulus-related projects.

Activists say the process is too rapid to adequately access the projects' environmental impacts.

“The problem is that some of this is done in a short time,” said Mr. Zhang. “If some of the projects are very big, the environmental impact assessments [EIAs] will take a long time.”

China's top planning body, the National Development and Reform Commission, has said it will provide details about the stimulus package online, but environmental groups say that hasn't been provided. Information posted about the 2009 budget doesn't differentiate between stimulus spending and prior budgetary allocations, they say.

“This is going to be very important, not just for the Chinese economy but for where China is heading environmentally,” Mr. Sze said. “The Chinese government did promise more transparency, but so far that hasn't materialized.”

There are also fears that once funds move from Beijing to local governments - where local environmental protection bureaus can be pressured more easily - pet projects that had been rolled back because of pollution concerns might be allowed to proceed.

“The concern is always there,” Mr. Sze said. “It's a bit of a cat-and-mouse game, especially on the EIA process.”

Mr. Sze said the environmental ministry is assuming responsibility for more environmental impact assessments, including any new coal-fired power plants. In the past, only coal-fired power plants exceeding 200 megawatts had to get MEP approval, while smaller plants were managed by local environmental bureaus.

There is some hope that the MEP can use its growing influence to block the most egregious projects. Also, despite trimming a large portion from the stimulus package, China's environmental spending according to the 2009 central government budget will be $18 billion, an 18.9 percent increase over 2008.

“There's more of a role to be played by the MEP,” Mr. Zhang said. “From the investment to the construction process, the environmental authorities have to be involved in the monitoring process.”

Many in the Chinese public are also clamoring for a place at the table when it comes to the country's environmental future. Public demonstrations against local pollution problems are on the rise, and some development projects have been blocked or moved to other locations.

“There are many more public protests over environmental concerns now,” Mr. Sze said. “This shows that the public can play a huge role.”

A survey of 10,000 citizens by the China Environment and Culture Promotion Association found that more than three-fourths thought the country's environmental problems were serious or very serious. Respondents gave the government a failing grade in environmental protection in 2008 and were dissatisfied with government efficiency in handing environmental incidents and dealing with public reaction to environmental problems.

“The public is actively involved not only in expressing their ideas and preferences, but believe that they are involved in decision making process,” Mr. Zhang said. “They are increasingly delivering their ideas in a serious way.”

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