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Green Standards for Government Officials

Chinese are apathetic about environmental protection, a national report claims. For a nation wanting to build an environmentally friendly country, this is bad news.


But worse still, China will miss its "Green GDP" target of reducing energy consumption for 2006, the National Development and Reform Commission predicted at the end of last year.


We have yet to wait for the final 2006 statistics on environment but we have already learned that China had an increase of 0.8 percent in its energy consumption per unit of GDP in the first half of last year, and indexes of major pollutants have also continued to rise.


The gap is definitely not small between the reality and the government target and there is no sign of it being reduced.


Therefore the general public is an easy scapegoat and their lack of environmental participation is to blame, claimed the State Environmental Protection Administration's annual report on environmental awareness.


"Chinese people are dissatisfied with the state of the environment but they seldom take part in environmental protection activities," the report says.


The report may alert the general public: As Chinese we need to care more about our environment and make it fit for our habitation. It is in our own interest that we take action, and now.


But next come my questions: what about government officials? Are they aware of the aggravating environment? Are they aware of the environmental impact of their decisions? Is their environmental awareness higher than the general public or vice versa?


Answers to these questions are not yet available but we need to know. I believe the government and the economy are the two fundamental driving forces that shape our environment.


It is known to all that the pollute-then-treat model experienced by some developed nations has been copied in many parts of China.


For instance, many small enterprises have prospered in both the Yangtze and Pearl River deltas, and they have achieved their success at the expense of the environment. What's more, the industrialization process in the two regions is much faster than developed nations, presenting a more serious threat to the environment.


No doubt growth patterns affect the environment and it is important we look at different patterns when we discuss environmental issues. However, in my opinion, it is more important that we look at the government and its officials because their environmental awareness and attitudes are decisive in designing growth patterns, which in turn, will have a huge impact on the landscape.


When designing a path for local development, government officials are usually GDP-oriented, and their growth-at-all-costs attitude, more often than not, leads them to not-so-scientific decisions, which can be detrimental to the environment.


The reasons behind their practice are simple: a high growth rate is seen as a good to excellent performance in the official evaluation system.


In their quest for better performances they pursue a high growth rate. They believe that their political careers have to be built that way.


Too many have been promoted on the credit of their localities' high growth rate their political achievements in other words.


Seldom do we hear officials held accountable for aggravating the environment and being demoted thereafter.


As a matter of fact, officials follow the convenient path and practice after their predecessors.


The latest example was in Lanzhou, capital of Gansu Province.


Last week, we learned air pollution in the city was so serious that Mayor Zhang Jinliang asked civil servants to walk to work on days when the pollution level was very high.


Despite the local government and its people's efforts to improve the environment, Lanzhou remains one of the 10 most polluted cities in the world.


We can easily lay the blame on the city's special geographic and climatic conditions for the serious situation. But that is of little help since we can hardly change the conditions.


If we scrutinize the other two main factors heavy industrial emissions and the use of coal as the main source of fuel, the government has to take the blame.


I do not mean to say that the government has done little to improve. But the fact is, the government has done much harm to the situation by approving more projects, which were not environmentally friendly in this ecologically sensitive region.


It is just a week after Mayor Zhang's call that I have learned from, Lanzhou will speed up construction of some heavy industrial projects and chemical plants as well. The city will also build an auto factory with an annual capacity of 100,000 cars.


I find it hard to convince myself that the city government is serious about the environment. Even if all civil servants walk to work in answer to the mayor's call, will the action help reduce the pollution to be caused by these new projects?


When accountability is not in place, there is no way we can check the government's desire for fast growth.


It is clear if the incentive-driven system in which growth-pollution is rewarded by promotion, officials will be encouraged to walk the same path. So why not clear the roadblock and set environment standard for governments at all levels? Green GDP may be a good beginning.


(China Daily January 29, 2007)

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