Dynamic data

The results of China’s first national pollution survey make for dispiriting reading. But, argues Ma Jun, their release could be the spark for environmental recovery.

Figures from China’s first national pollution survey were jointly released by the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) and the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) on February 9 – the first results of the two-year long undertaking to be made public. The information released on this occasion was an overview of national macro data and the changes seen in some major emission indices have consequences for China’s overall pollution-reduction efforts.

The new figures show that emissions of some pollutants are far above the levels made public in the past. Take Chemical Oxygen Demand (COD), an important measure of the degree of water pollution, as an example. In 2007, the China Environmental Report put overall national COD at 13.818 million tonnes. The new survey, which includes previously omitted sources of pollution such as agriculture, more than doubled this figure to 30.2896 million tonnes. Similar increases were seen in industrial solid wastes, which are particularly hazardous substances. Worryingly, these updated figures put levels of pollution far beyond environmental capacity – the amount of pollution the environment is able to absorb.

Research by environmental-planning authorities puts national COD capacity at 7.4 million tonnes. That means that, even accepting the 2007 figures, COD levels would have to be cut by half in order to reach the carrying capacity of the environment. But the new data has calculated total COD at more than four times environmental capacity. The 11th Five Year Plan called for a reduction in COD of 10%, leaving you wondering how many five-year periods it will take to reduce levels to a point at which China’s rivers can flow clean.

Although the news is bad, we should not lose confidence in our ability to bring pollution under control. The release of this information is an extension of the government’s commitment to greater environmental openness, a positive trend that started in 2004 and is worthy of affirmation. Facing the problem lays the foundation for solving it and we need an accurate picture of the situation if we are to produce a realistic and practical pollution strategy.

First, we need to reach a consensus. The huge increase in emissions requires greater efforts to cut pollution – in particular water contamination and hazardous waste. Next, all levels of government should make good use of this hard-won data.

Central government should use this more comprehensive and reliable information to re-examine the overall policy direction and make major adjustments to future pollution-reduction targets in order to achieve a basic balance between development and protection. Local government should use the data to understand pollution within their jurisdictions, cease the use of unrealistic estimates of environmental capacity to justify the expansion of energy-hungry and polluting industries and protect the land and water.

Meanwhile, this basic data – obtained at great public expense – should be steadily released to the public rather than restricted to government, particularly information on the release of toxic and harmful substances by industry. These substances are a direct threat to health and safety and the release of this data will assist the public in understanding local environmental risks and better protecting environmental interests. The release of the data will also promote public participation in environmental decision making and management. And developed-nation experiences show that the regular and mandatory publication of data on pollution sources encourages industry to save power and cut emissions.

If releasing the results of this pollution survey can kick start a system where data on emissions from pollution sources is regularly published, it will have a deep and long-lasting impact on future pollution control.

Ma Jun is director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs.

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