China Putting Teeth in Environmental Regulations

This year, Chinese officials began putting some sharp teeth to the country’s environmental regulations.

This can have significant implications for the economy — last week, the World Bank calculated that air pollution alone is costing China 3.8 percent of its GDP. Adding in water pollution and non-health impacts of pollution raises that estimate to about 5.8 percent of GDP — a total of about $100 billion.

Last month, health officials said last that birth defects in China had increased by nearly 40 percent since 2001, in part as a result of environmental degradation, according to the state-owned China Daily newspaper.

Jin Yinlong, a researcher at the Center for Disease of Control and Prevention told the National Forum on Environment and Health in Beijing, that water pollution accounted for 59 percent of 600,000 complaints registered last year.

Zhou Zhengxian, director of the State Environmental Protection Administration, told Xinhua this week that local regions will be assigned pollution caps — those that exceed those caps would not be allowed to embark on new potentially polluting projects.

In 2009, enterprises would be required to get environmental permits before discharging byproducts into the environment.

Enterprises that do not meet discharge requirements or are found guilty of other environmental regulations would be refused permission to list on the stock market, he added, and companies that are already listed must open their environmental records to the public.

In rural areas, sewage systems will be upgraded and the use of chemical fertilizers reduced, with all new or renovated poultry farms required to pass environmental assessments.

By 2010, he said, 70 percent of all urban sewage will be processed before being discharged.

“From a long-term perspective, our target for China’s rivers is to resume their natural appearance,” he told Xinhua.

In July, a new policy required local authorities in areas along the four major rivers to prioritize the environment over the economy.

Some of the new measures are already having an effect.

According to Xinhua, in the first three quarters of this year, emissions of sulfur dioxide – the major air pollutant – hit 19.06 million tons, down 1.81 percent year on year. Chemical oxygen demand – a key water pollution index – was 10.44 million tons, down 0.28 percent.

Last year, a survey showed that surface water was generally affected by “medium pollution,” and a full third of samples of surface water were graded “worst polluted.”

Putting new teeth in environmental regulations is just half the battle, however.

The government also needs to allow non-governmental watchdog groups — non-profit organizations, educational and research institutions, and media groups — to take a more active role in monitoring violations.

Private companies, state-owned enterprises and government agencies must all be subject to public scrutiny — and the criticism that sometimes comes with it.

Public criticism doesn’t always make for a perfectly harmonious society, but it could lead to a cleaner and healthier society — and create more harmony in the long term.