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Prevention Costs Less than the Cure

The State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) suspended 30 construction projects that violated rules governing their environmental impact assessments on January 18. Since then a series of moves have been taken to improve environmental protection in the country.


SEPA has also just issued warnings to 46 large coal-fired power plants which have not carried out desulphurization projects as required.


These moves, though acclaimed by their supporters as a "storm" blowing away some long-existing obstacles to improving the environment, are far from everything needed to curb pollution or recover destroyed forests.


Yet, they do touch on some key issues in environmental protection in China, offering a chance to find a final solution to these problems.


For many, these moves will herald the start of better implementation of legislation and rules on environmental protection.


Since China promulgated its first law on environmental protection in 1979, the country has seen another seven laws on protecting the environment, nine laws on managing natural resources, more than 30 administrative rules and regulations in the two fields, 30-plus laws and regulations on sustainable development and numerous texts on environmental standards at national and local level.


This speed of establishing a legal network needed for protecting the environment has happened faster than in most countries.


But the network has failed to keep pollution in check.


China's pollution keeps worsening, the environment is getting more damaged and precious resources are being squandered and destroyed.


One of the major reasons for this situation is that legislation, and rules and regulations are not being carried out.


SEPA's call to stop construction on some projects shows the authorities' determination to stick to the rule of law.


But ignorance of environmental laws actually originates in the traditional concept of development.


With economic growth the first priority, environmental protection is naturally put on hold.


Legislators, local or national, hesitate to lay down specific or harsh environmental standards for fear of obstructing economic growth.


Given such circumstances, no wonder laws are not carried out faithfully.


Fully implementing laws and regulations about environmental protection is important because it could help bridge the regional gap in development, diminish the differences between social groups and balance relations between humans and nature.


Only when the whole of society advances in a harmonious way can economic development be sustained, people's lives be improved, and future generations left with enough natural resources.


All construction projects should go through environmental impact assessments before being started. Although the Law on Environmental Impact Assessment came into force in 2003, in reality pollutants are still being produced and projects are built in improper places, endangering plants and animals.


Obviously, these projects did not have any serious environmental assessment. Some projects are almost finished before they get an approval to their environmental impact assessment reports.


Our already fragile environment makes us unable to afford further pollution. We cannot wait until the damage is done before finding the solution.


Instead, we urgently need to prevent pollution from projects in the first place and improve the efficiency of resource utilization during the process of industrial development.


Some experts think this is not a good time to stress environmental protection because the projects that have been stopped are mainly power plants.


Since the economy is rapidly growing and power shortages are a nationwide headache, SEPA's ban and warnings to the power sector may pose a threat to economic growth, they say.


But the bans and warnings are part of another model of development.


That model wants to ensure that the economy grows in a way that does as little harm to the environment as possible, improving people's health and maintaining social stability.


If the authorities follow the swelling demand for energy, the country will only go further down the road of unsustainable development.


Last year, the total capacity of power stations under construction around the country amounted to 150 million kilowatts. This will probably lead to another round of development of energy-intensive industries, which will push China beyond the limits of its resources and damage the environment.


The hydro-electric power projects in the west and the southwest are also the targets of intense controversy.


The rich biological diversity and geographic features of these areas are under threats from proposed dams.


The Xiluodu hydropower project on the upper reaches of the Yangtze River, one of the projects on SEPA's list, could affect the survival of more than 40 species of fish unique to the river.


The project will also involve the resettlement of more than 52,000 residents in neighboring Yunnan and Sichuan provinces.


But a project with such a huge impact has begun before the national authority approved its environmental impact assessment report.


SEPA's moves in the last two months are actually aimed at forcing people to respect current procedures on environmental impact assessment.


Yet, without effective public supervision, the current assessment system is still not perfect.


An open and transparent process should be established to encourage the public to voice their opinions about the environmental impact of construction projects.


Non-governmental organizations focusing on environmental protection should also be encouraged to contact the authorities and the people.


Environmental impact assessment goes beyond weighing the economic risks, revenues and costs of projects. It should also include all interest groups in the decision-making process in a systematic way to achieve harmony between nature and humans.


(China Daily February 22, 2005)


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