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China Pollution Report

Group finds country is harming environment as its economy grows

by Jean-François Tremblay
July 23, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 30

A city along the Yangtze River near the southwestern municipality of Chongqing sees the uglier side of China's fast-growing economy.
Credit: Jean-François Tremblay/C&EN
Credit: Jean-François Tremblay/C&EN

IN ITS FIRST REPORT on China's environment, the international Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD) finds that the country is harming its environment and the health of its citizens as its economy leaps forward.

OECD estimates that unless the current trend is changed, by 2020 air pollution will lead to 600,000 premature deaths annually in Chinese cities. Citing data from the Chinese Ministry of Health, OECD says 300 million rural residents already lack access to safe drinking water.

The 340-page report also says China consumes resources inefficiently. It finds that the country "generates more pollution and consumes more resources per unit of GDP than OECD averages." China is aiming to quadruple its GDP between 2000 and 2020, but the country "requires commensurate strengthening of environmental management and finance so that economic growth is environmentally sustainable," the report says.

OECD finds that China has been making progress toward better environmental practices but that more needs to be done. For example, a water law passed in 2002 is "comprehensive," has clear control mechanisms, and makes it possible to implement major reform in the water sector. But large investments are still needed to upgrade water distribution in China's fast-growing cities. Moreover, there is not enough water in the country to maintain the currently inefficient patterns of water usage by cities and the agricultural sector, OECD says.

In the richer parts of China, local officials are responding to citizens' demands for less pollution. But in much of the country, the report says, one of the primary obstacles to progress is that local leaders have to raise revenues locally and face "limited accountability." As a result, economic growth takes precedence over environmental preservation. OECD recommends improving the enforcement capabilities of China's local Environmental Protection Bureaus and turning the State Environmental Protection Agency into a ministry.

The report notes that the state of China's environment is an international issue because it involves global energy consumption patterns, global manufacturing patterns, and transboundary pollution. The conclusions and recommendations in the report were approved by a Chinese government delegation that took part in the project.


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