Understanding China's 'Environmental Protection Storm': Jian Yang Comments on a Recent Burst of Activity by China's Environmental Protection Agency

Article excerpt

China is an environmental 'superpower' in that it is a major factor in almost every transnational environmental issue, be it global warming, ozone depletion, biodiversity loss, global food security, human population growth, or over-exploitation of the global commons. With its enormous size in terms of both territory and population, rapid economic growth, and increasing environmental degradation, China's importance to the global environment is overwhelming. As noted, 'the effects of 1.3 billion Chinese aspiring to consume and hence pollute like Americans could in coming years undo any progress in halting global warming'. (1) It is therefore worthwhile for us to have a good look at the 'Environmental Protection Storm' that blew over China in early 2005.

First wave

On 18 January 2005, China's environmental watchdog, the State Environment Protection Administration (SEPA), ordered 30 large industrial projects spanning 13 provinces and valued at more than RMB [yen] 118 billion (US$13.7 billion) to stop on the grounds that they had failed to file required paperwork. Work had started in the absence of mandatory environmental impact assessments. It is the first time that SEPA has used the power to halt projects granted to it under the National Environmental Assessment Law, which came into effect in September 2003. The law ordered that a project would not be approved until it had undergone an environmental evaluation.

Twenty-six of the 30 projects were energy projects. China Three Gorges Project Corporation (CTGPC, which operates the Three Gorges Dam, the world's largest hydro-electric project, was highlighted on SEPA's list. Three of CTGPC's hydro-electric power stations were listed among the banned projects. Topping the list was the huge 12,600MW Xiluodu hydro-electric power station on the Jinshajiang River (on the upper reaches of the Yangtze River). This project involves an investment of more than [yen] 44.6 billion ($5.37 billion). It is the second largest hydro-power station, surpassed only by that at the Three Gorges. Its construction will displace 34,000 residents, threaten the fragile ecology of the area and flood some of the world's most spectacular canyons and gorges. Another banned project, the Three Gorges Underground Power Plant, was expected to have a capacity of 4200MW when completed in 2008.

Second wave

While the Chinese analysts and media were still interpreting the motives and impact of SEPA's 18 January order, SEPA launched a second wave on 27 January by announcing a list of 46 thermal power plants that posed a threat to the environment because of their lack of de-sulfurisation equipment. The plants were among the 137 de-sulfurisation projects planned in the country's acid rain and sulfur dioxide control regions covering 109 square kilometres with 39 per cent of the nation's total population.

Thermal power plants, mostly fueled by coal, are major air polluters in China. SEPA figures show that in 2003, thermal plants discharged 11 million tons of sulfur dioxide, and the amount is expected to reach more than 21 million tons by 2020 if not effectively curbed. The above mentioned de-sulfuration projects should have been completed by the end of 2005 according to the regulations. However, construction had not even begun. SEPA demanded that the 46 coal-fired plants install de-sulphurisation equipment by year-end. The power companies must file complete project feasibility proposals by 31 January 2005 and begin construction by the end of April 2005 or face a blanket ban on further project approvals. The principal parts of these projects must be completed by the end of 2005. Those companies that can not meet this requirement will not have the chance either to begin or continue their projects.

Power expansion

The 'Environmental Protection Storm' can be interpreted as the result of a 'turf war' between SEPA and other departments. To put it in another way, SEPA is engaged in 'power expansion' (kuo quan). …