China Enforcing Green Laws, Suddenly ; Beijing Has Targeted 22 Major Energy Projects to Assess Their Environmental Impact

Article excerpt

As many as 22 major dams and power stations under construction in China, including a key power facility at the controversial Three Gorges Dam, have slowed or stopped work pending an environmental review.

In the first instance of its kind, top Chinese leaders appear to be throwing their clout behind laws requiring environmental-impact statements for large energy-related projects.

Even if the projects, which total more than $14 billion and span 13 provinces, soon go back online, Beijing's public support of the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), long considered a mere showpiece, seems an official nod to growing numbers of Chinese who support tougher policies to protect nature.

Energy-hungry China has embarked in recent years on a breakneck program of investment in power plants, adding to an already overheating economy. By enforcing policies requiring companies to account for environmental impact, the power sector may cool down a bit - one reason to allow SEPA to fine construction companies and demand they follow the law, according to an unusually frank South Metropolitan Daily editorial.

In the past decade, China's roaring double-digit growth, industrial output, and booming new-car sales have caused some of the worst air and water pollution in Asia.

So far, watchdogs like SEPA, despite being an arm of government, have not been given latitude to enforce any clean air and water laws.

Yet on Jan. 18, in a bit of savvy bureaucratic maneuvering, SEPA suddenly charged 30 construction projects with illegality, since they failed to submit impact statements.

Since then, most of the dams and hydroelectric projects have reportedly suspended work, according to the English-language China Daily.

The construction firm building the Three Gorges Dam project, after several days of balking, bent to an edict from the State Council. It stopped work on a 4,500-megawatt underground power facility, and a $5 billion dam called Xiluodu on the Yangtze River.

Analysts attribute a new attitude about the environment to deepening relations between figures like Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and young stars at SEPA, like its deputy director Pan Yue.

"I think this is a significant moment; it signifies a new consciousness about the environment," says Elizabeth Economy of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "Pan Yue is spearheading that move among elites, and SEPA clearly has the ear of [Premier] Wen Jiabao."

The environment is a popular grass-roots issue in China, one of the few issues the central government allows some public discussion about. Every top college in China has an active student environmental group. The government of President Hu Jintao, moreover, which has a "people first" platform, knows the environment has a special hold on the imagination of a broad range of Chinese - partly because many of the children of high-ranking are involved in nongovernmental environmental lobby groups.

Few analysts say Beijing is about to allow large-scale public works projects, a source of employment and energy, to be vetoed by a small agency.

Yet analysts agree the high profile push by SEPA is a signal - to reform-minded elites, a generation of younger educated Chinese, and policymakers in other countries where the environment gets top billing - that the environment will weigh more heavily in planning and decisionmaking. …