Stricter measures to ensure officials responsible for pollution accidents are held to account have been called for by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao who observed that environmental protection was still not receiving enough notice in some areas.
"Those who cause major pollution accidents through wrong decisions or lax supervision must be severely punished," Wen said on April 17 at the sixth national environmental protection conference held in Beijing. The full transcript of the speech was published on Sunday.
The official accountability system has already led to the sacking of government officials after environmental incidents among them former environmental chief Xie Zhenhua after the Songhua River incident last November.
The conference, attended by environmental chiefs from various regions in China, coincided with choking dusty weather which plagued the Chinese capital for several days.
"We must be fully aware of the severity and complexity of our country's environmental situation and the importance and urgency of improving environmental protection," Wen said.
Environmental protection will become part of the assessment system of economic and social development and the performance of officials, Wen pointed out.
"From this year the levels of energy consumption and discharge of pollutants of various regions and major industries should be released to the public every six months to facilitate supervision," said Wen.
Zhou Shengxian, head of the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), said pollution posed a great threat to social stability noting there were 51,000 disputes over pollution last year.
He said China has experienced 76 environmental emergencies since serious pollution of northeast China's Songhua River on Nov. 13, 2005 - one every two days on average.
Unless effective measures were taken, he said, pollution would become an bigger problem.
At the meeting, Wen called for quotas to be set for the discharge of pollutants in various regions. He also demanded construction projects that failed environmental impact appraisals to be reviewed, restrictions or a ban on development in certain functional areas, stronger law enforcement, the establishment of a proper price structure for pollution discharge and treatment, an increase in investment in environmental protection and an improvement in the monitoring and management systems.
"We must spend money on pollution control sooner or later and the sooner the better," said Wen.
He urged hard work in the following areas:
-- intensify treatment of pollution and solve outstanding environmental problems. The most urgent tasks at present were to curb water and air pollution.
"Our chemical plants are mostly located along rivers. This could cause serious consequences if accidents occur," said Wen.
-- improve protection of eco-systems and push to reverse ecological deterioration. On one hand, improper development activities should be controlled and on the other hand continuous efforts required to be made to protect woodland and plant new forests.
-- accelerate economic restructuring to create an industrial system that would aid resource conservation and environmental protection.
-- make advances in environmental science and technology to improve environmental protection capabilities.
"Protecting the environment is to protect the homes we live in and the foundations for the development of the Chinese nation," said Wen. "We should not use up resources left by our forefathers without leaving any to our offspring."
Wen said China has surpassed most economic development objectives during the past five years but not the two main targets in environmental protection.
China set targets of cutting discharge of sulphur dioxide by 10 percent and chemical oxygen demand (COD) by 10 percent during 2000-2005. In 2005 discharge of sulphur dioxide rose 27 percent over 2000 while discharge of COD dropped by only 2 percent.
Currently, rivers flowing through cities are polluted in sections of the downtown areas; one fifth of Chinese cities suffer from serious air pollution; one third of the land area is affected by acid rain; 3.56 million square kilometers of land suffer soil erosion; 1.74 million square kilometers of land is undergoing desertification; more than 90 percent of natural grasslands have degenerated and biodiversity has decreased.
"Environmental problems that confronted developed countries over more than 100 years of industrialization have occurred all at once in China," said Wen.
He said ecological damage and environmental pollution had caused huge economic losses and threatened the health and lives of people.
China's 11th Five-Year (2006-2010) Plan for economic and social development has set environmental protection targets for the next five years which include cutting energy consumption per unit of GDP by around 20 percent from the end of the 10th Five-Year (2001-2005) Plan period; reducing discharge of major pollutants by 10 percent; and increasing forest coverage rate from 18.2 percent to 20 percent.
"Although it will be difficult we must ensure these targets are met," said Wen.
(Xinhua News Agency April 25, 2006)