The Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) has articulated the concerns of many that the need for economic stimulating activities may result in backsliding on the environmental front in China. Zhou Shengxian, the Minister of MEP, in remarks before a national conference on environmental protection on Monday, said that “factories with backward facilities ‘would revive’, using the excuse of the country’s massive investment plan to boost domestic demand.” He also said that the country “should also be alert to the risk of increased pollution during the economic downturn, as firms running at a loss could suspend the operation of pollution-treatment facilities to reduce costs.”
His comments seemed design to try and protect what appear (based on the preliminary numbers) to be encouraging improvements in China’s environmental situation in 2008:
- China’s emissions of sulfur dioxide and the chemical oxygen demand both fell
- 113 major Chinese cities enjoyed 90 percent good air quality last year, up 1.8 percent from 2007.
- Water quality at 746 monitoring stations nationwide also showed improvement. The proportion of water-quality level I-III, regarded as good quality, reached 47 percent last year, up 4 percent year-on-year.
A portion of these gains are no doubt attributable to the economic downturn which kicked in in the 4th quarter of last year, but I suspect progress would have been made even without the slowing economy.
Significant environmental improvements in 2009 are critical to the achievement of the environmental goals set forth in the 11th Five-year Plan. As Zhou acknowledged, “China needs to ‘sprint’ this year to achieve its green goals.”
There will inevitably be some steps backward as regional governments anxious to maintain employment look the other way when it comes to environmental compliance enforcement. However, mothballed polluting facilities won’t reopen, and up and running plants won’t produce as much if there is no demand for the products they make. It’s hard, therefore, to know which way the economic situation will cut in terms of environmental indicators in 2009.