Opening the city gates

China’s urban centres are making incremental improvements in environmental transparency, says a new study, but much more is needed to fuel the fight against pollution. Meng Si reports.

China’s cities have made small advances in environmental transparency in the past year but are still failing to achieve acceptable levels of pollution data disclosure, joint research by two green NGOs has found.

At the end of December, Beijing’s Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) and the US-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) released a report on levels of environmental information disclosure at city level in China, which examined 113 locations and awarded marks out of one hundred to each.

The average score was 36 and only 11 cities – less than 10% – reached the “pass mark” of 60 points. Ningbo, on the east coast, had the highest score at 82.1, while Jinzhou, in north-eastern China, brought up the rear with 14 points.

This was the second Pollution Information Transparency Index to be published by the two NGOs. In September 2009, when they released the 2008 rankings – the first time such figures had been published – only four cities reached a score of 60 or above.

Speaking at the launch of the report for the period 2009-2010, Ma Jun, director of the IPE and one of the study’s compilers, said: “Disclosure of information is a precondition for public participation – and without public participation, it will be hard to overcome the issue of environmental pollution.”

The index is based on performance in eight areas, including records of breaches of pollution laws, environmental complaints and environmental-impact reports, in 113 cities in eastern, central and western China.

The average score for 2009-2010 is five points higher than the previous year, demonstrating an overall advance. But the progress is not evenly distributed, and growing divergence between different geographical areas is visible thanks to an increased lead for cities on the southern and eastern coasts. As the report explains, when the average score is looked at by province, “Shanghai, Fujian, Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Guangdong are in the lead, while those in central and western China – Guizhou, Inner Mongolia, Jiangxi, Jilin and Gansu – are at the bottom.”

In many cases, compilers of the report also found large differences between cities within the same province. In nine provinces, the highest ranking city had a score twice or more that of the lowest. In Guangdong, south China, there was a difference of 55.7 points between the best and worst performers, while the Pearl River Delta special economic zone of Zhuhai was 37.3 points behind Shenzhen.

The report also identifies the 10 cities that have shown the biggest improvement and decline in the past year. The improvers include Jiaxing in eastern China and Foshan, Dongguan, Zhongshan and Shenzhen in the south. Shaoxing, the most improved in terms of ranking, published daily monitoring records for 358 firms – compared to 80 in 2008; and in 2010 started to publish a monthly list of firms subject to administrative sanctions and the details of their breaches. In 2009, Foshan took action against 500 companies.

The 10 cities to see their scores fall the furthest were: Kunming, Taiyuan, Wuhan, Changzhi, Huzhou, Hangzhou, Hefei, Chifeng, Mudanjiang and Jinzhou. In the year 2009 to 2010, Hangzhou saw a sharp drop in the number of firms for which daily monitoring records were published, and requests for these to be published received no reply. In 2009, Taiyuan stopped issuing quarterly monitoring reports on major sources of pollution altogether, while the website for Chifeng Environmental Protection Bureau has long been inaccessible.

The authors of the report point out that the performance of some of the country’s most important cities were far from exemplary. “Of the four directly-administered municipalities, Tianjin’s disclosures were extremely limited, while Beijing’s score had dropped significantly (it scored 43.5 points and came 31st, down 14 places from its position in 2008). Of the 25 provincial capitals, the lowest five – Hohhot, Guiyang, Changchun, Nanchang and Xining – scored around 20 points and, in 11 provinces, the provincial capital failed to perform best. Some of these, such as Hangzhou and Shijiazhuang, were actually nearer the bottom within their province.” In some areas, advances were not maintained. Improved performances for the Olympics, World Expo or Asian Games proved to be only temporary.

Alex Wang, head of the NRDC’s Chinese environmental law project and one of the report’s authors, said that media and public applications for information and judicial redress still face problems. The Zijin Mining pollution incident was covered up for nine days, revealing the hidden risk that listed firms will breach information disclosure requirements.

The report does acknowledge encouraging advances in government measures to promote transparency. Wang pointed out that, in March 2010, the Ministry of Environmental Protection published a notice on pollution breaches by firms under state monitoring, showing that almost 40% of some 7,000 companies had violated regulations. This was the first time the ministry had published this information. But, added Wang, only the company names were given – and not the details of their polluting activities.

In a bid to explain the geographical divergence within the index, the report refers to an analysis of the 2008 data by three academics from the University of California, Berkley and Yale University, which found that as economic development and stability of local government finances increase, and as single industries become less important in the local economy, transparency of information improves.

But Zhu Xiao, who also contributed to the study and is an assistant professor at Renmin University’s Law School, believes that smaller governmental budgets do not necessarily mean low levels of disclosure. He said that, although only two central and western cities appeared in the top 20 this year, in 2008 they were a force to be reckoned with: “The top 10 in 2008 had Wuhan in 4th place, Taiyuan in 9th and Kunming in 16th.” Zhu believes that the key issue is one of commitment.

Wang Canfa, professor of environmental law at China University of Political Science and Law and director of the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims, suggested that disclosure of environmental information can lessen pressure on environmental law enforcement authorities, as firms will respond by taking remedial action of their own accord. But head of the information centre at Huangshi’s Environmental Protection Bureau, Tang Yuanpeng, said the environmental authorities face pressure from all sides. “If a lot of fuss is made about minor issues at firms which are actually doing very well, it can affect their growth.” He also admitted that local protectionism and political face have an impact.

Others believe there is scope for government intervention that does not include naming and shaming or punishing companies. Chen Shengliang, head of the natural ecology office at Chongqing Environmental Protection Bureau, said the government cannot just sit and watch if problems are arising at major firms due to technical limitations, for example.

He pointed to the case of one Chongqing producer of chromium oxide. Accounting for 60% of global production of the chemical, it is one of two firms in the city able to set pricing for its product on a global basis. The government has not published details of pollution by the firm, but has encouraged it to take measures and worked behind the scenes to help it upgrade its technology and deal with pollution. “Disclosure won’t help if there’s no technological solution,” said Chen.

Chen has also proposed that the design of evaluation indices used by civil society coincide as far as possible with that applied by government, so that everyone is clear about where they stand. IPE deputy director Wang Jingjing said that discrepancies between official and NGO evaluations are caused by heavy government reliance on website functionality, while the NGO version focuses on pollution monitoring data. “Privately, environmental officials have admitted that this is more objective and fair,” he said.

In the last 20 years, there has been a global move towards greater disclosure of information. Alex Wang explained that, after the United States established the Toxic Release Inventory system in 1986, countries including Canada, Korea, Australia, Japan, Mexico and European nations implemented similar measures. An increasing body of evidence shows that corporate-level environmental information – particularly data on release of pollutants – puts pressure on firms and results in a positive impact on environmental performance. In the United States, between 1988 and 1999, emissions of major toxins fell by 46%.

Disclosure alone will only get you so far, however. “Information disclosure does not mean the resolution of all problems – it is just the start,” said Zhu Xiao. “The government then needs to use that open information to follow up with enforcement activities and pursue legal responsibility.”


Meng Si is managing editor in chinadialogue’s Beijing office. 

Homepage image from Greenpeace shows school children passing a waste incineration plant in Shantou, Guangdong.