China's local governments say they are determined to reach 2007 energy saving and pollution reduction goals, after the country dipped out on last year's targets.
At annual sessions of local people's congresses and people's political consultative conferences in January and February, provincial governments have put energy saving and pollution reduction goals at the top of their 2007 agendas.
China has committed itself to improving energy efficiency -- its goal is to cut energy consumption by 20 percent per unit of GDP, along with a 10 percent cut in major pollutants, between 2006 and 2010.
China's per unit of GDP energy consumption fell 1.23 percent in2006, well short of the projected target of 4 percent, official figures released this week show.
China also failed to achieve its pollution reduction goal, with major pollutants, including sulfur dioxide emissions and Chemical Oxygen Demand (COD) both increasing last year.
The central government has reacted vigorously.
The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) announced in January that China would close small coal-fired power units with total annual capacity of 50 million kilowatts over the next four years.
Analysts say that success or failure with the 20 percent target is crucial to China's sustainable prosperity. But success depends on local implementation with some provinces notoriously turning a deaf ear to central government vows to cut energy consumption.
With mounting pressure from the central authority and an outcry from the public, provincial governors are at last waking up to the importance of energy conservation and environmental protection.
Liang Baohua, governor of Jiangsu Province, said in his report to the provincial people's congress that this "year's energy saving and pollution control goals are compulsory and must be achieved, while the economic growth rate of 11 percent is flexible and can be adjusted according to practical situations."
For two decades, economic growth was the overriding consideration in local development and the sole criterion for judging local government performance. The new priorities represent a drastic and unprecedented change.
According to Liang's report, per unit of GDP energy consumption in the province fell 4.02 percent last year, with a 3.3-percent cut in major pollutants. The Jiangsu provincial government has set the goal of cutting energy consumption by 4.2 percent and major pollutants by 3.3 percent this year.
For the country's capital, Beijing, the upcoming 2008 Olympics is an opportunity to make real environmental progress.
"Beijing will close 80 mines, move several chemical plants out of the city, set new pollution discharge standards, and newly-designed residential buildings will consume 65 percent less energy," said Beijing Mayor Wang Qishan in his work report.
Officials in northeast China's Heilongjiang Province are also keen to cut energy consumption and protect the environment. Heilongjiang boasts the Songhua River -- seriously polluted in 2005 after a chemical plant explosion that caused a four-day water cutoff in the provincial capital Harbin.
According to a circular issued by the provincial government in January, a series of policies will be adopted to ensure the local economy develops in a harmonious way.
Governments at all levels in the province have been instructed to make environmental impact reports a key investment evaluation criterion.
"Projects that may have a big impact on the environment must be carefully evaluated before being approved," says the circular.
"Major polluters" such as coal mines and oil companies will have to reach for their wallets to repair the damage they do to the environment.
What's more, a new local official assessment system will make environmental protection achievements an important element of judging performances in Heilongjiang Province, said the circular.
All officials in Heilongjiang will be "audited" about their environmental protection performance when they leave their posts.
This will incite local officials, who used to be judged on their economic performance alone, to pay more attention to energy saving and environmental protection.
In the run-up to the annual parliament session set to open next Monday, Pan Yue, deputy director of the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), urged China's legislature to amend its 17-year-old environmental law to hold government officials accountable for pollution.
The law should specify and emphasize the government's responsibility in environmental protection and impose harsher punishments, he said.
Analysts are waiting for Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's address to the forthcoming fifth session of the 10th National People's Congress (NPC) to get a clearer indication of government thinking on the issue.
(Xinhua News Agency March 4, 2007)