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Eco-protection Heals Nature's Wounds

Eco-construction in China was initiated by the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) in 1995, in response to rapidly deteriorating ecological conditions, resulting from excessive exploitation of natural resources.  

By the end of 2003, SEPA had designated 484 regions to showcase the way to address environmental and ecological problems while ensuring sound development of regional economies. Most of the regions are rural counties. Up to now, 82 have been verified as having met the 22 targets set by SEPA. These fall into three categories, namely, economic development, environmental protection and social progress, which are widely accepted as the three mainstays for sustainable development.


"Targets set for these regions are pretty low, though the regions are called 'State-level ecological pilot regions'," said Peng Jinxin, director of the SEPA Nature and Ecology Conservation Department.


"They were worked out in light of actual conditions in the mid 1990s."


Eco-construction on 'higher track'


In 1998, however, Hainan, China's southernmost island province, worked out the country's first provincial eco-construction program which will develop the province into an "ecological province" by 2030. Publication of the program in 1999 inspired two northeastern provinces, Jilin and Heilongjiang, to draw up programs for the same purpose. According to Peng Jinxin and other SEPA officials, SEPA responded to these developments by organizing 150 experts to formulate complete sets of eco-construction targets for administrative areas at different levels - 22 targets for provinces, 28 for cities and 36 for counties. These targets were put into trial implementation in 2003.


Right now, of China's 31 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions, seven provinces - Hainan, Jilin, Heilongjiang, Fujian, Zhejiang, Shandong and Anhui - have won SEPA approval to go ahead with programs to develop themselves into "ecological provinces."


Three more provinces, Hebei, Shaanxi and Jiangxi, have expressed the intention of following suit. "Work has just begun to push nationwide eco-construction onto a 'higher track' that takes both urban and rural areas into consideration," Peng said. "In fact, work on the 'lower track' has also been continuing. Based on overall consideration of the country's unbalanced economic situation, the promotion of 'double track' eco-construction is expected to deal with ecological conservation in developed and undeveloped areas."


Provinces get on the "higher track" on a voluntary basis, because China does not yet have a unified national program for ecological construction. "We are looking forward to seeing the first group of 'ecological provinces' come forth around 2020 - maybe in an embryonic form," Peng said.


The central government will provide financial help to provinces in implementing major eco-construction projects. SEPA, for its part, is always ready to offer relevant and needed expertise. "Our experts will help them work out eco-construction programs and targets and formulate policy privileges to promote eco-construction efforts," Peng said.


Capital-intensive industrialization


The "double-track" eco-construction comes at a crucial moment for the Chinese economy. According to Pan Jiahua, an environmental economist with the Research Center for Sustainable Development of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), the country "is completing the process of primitive capital accumulation and is shifting from labor-intensive industrialization to capital-intensive industrialization.


"In the phase of labor-intensive industrialization," said Pan, "a country, more often than not, allows the least investment in public utilities for environmental protection."


Pan, a Cambridge PhD, is one of the experts invited by SEPA to contribute ideas to China's eco-construction endeavor. He said: "Now that China is entering the stage of capital-intensive industrialization, it needs to invest massively in environmental and ecological development if it wants to achieve sound and rapid economic development."


According to SEPA investigations, China produces nearly 60 billion cubic meters of sewage a year, and 80 percent is emptied into inland waters without disposal. A national survey of more than 700 major rivers shows that nearly half of the river sections and over 90 percent of waters along riverside cities have been polluted.


In 1999, 97 percent of the sewage discharged in Hainan Province was emptied into the sea directly. Under its program of becoming an ecological province, the province is working hard to ensure disposal of 50 percent of the sewage by 2005.


Beijing currently only has 48 percent of its domestic sewage treated. The city plans to have 90 percent of such sewage disposed by 2008, the year it will host the 29th Olympic Games.


Air pollution is equally serious, if not worse, due to constantly increasing consumption of energy, coal and charcoal in particular. In 2000, China burned 861.26 million tons of coal. The figure rose to 1.126 billion tons in 2003, according to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS).


Green GDP


Officials and experts attribute China's environmental hazards to a "one-sided understanding" of development, which has promoted pursuit of economic growth at the expense and neglect of ecological conservation and environmental protection. For China, the world's largest developing country, development is the "unbending principle," as Deng Xiaoping, the late chief architect of China's reforms, put it. In practice, they noted, economic growth was often achieved at the expense of the environment.


For a long time in the past, gross domestic product (GDP) was taken as the sole criterion for measuring the success of a local government in promoting economic development. To address the problem, SEPA and NBS have begun organizing research on establishing a "green GDP" accounting system. "'Green GDP' refers to what is left of GDP yielded by a region with environmental costs deducted," Pan said. "In theory, 'green GDP' compels local governments to pay more attention to environmental protection while striving for economic growth. Double-track ecological construction will make implementation of 'green' GDP possible."


"Moreover," he said, "relatively prosperous regions, especially in the eastern part of the country, are willing to invest more in environmental protection."


In April, Pan headed a small team of experts and went to Tongxiang, a city in north Zhejiang Province, with the task of helping improve the first-draft of its eco-construction program.


The county-turned city covers 723 square kilometers, an area crisscrossed by rivers. Two thirds of the local population, 660,000 in all, live in the countryside. Changes that have taken place in the city, particularly in Wuzhen under the city's jurisdiction, convinced the team that ecological conservation must, and can, go hand-in-hand with economic growth.


Wuzhen, a water town with an area of 71 square kilometers and a population of 12,000, is a vivid Chinese version of Venice. In addition to wondrous scenic beauty, the 1,200-year-old town is famed for its riverside wooden-structured houses with black tiles and white walls, flagstone-paved streets and lanes, and stone arch bridges over waterways, all in traditional style.


Hoping to improve their life as quickly as possible, people in the area kicked off rural industrialization two decades ago - at the expense of the environment. Tongxiang used to have 130 kilns making bricks and tiles, mostly in rural areas. They burned huge quantities of coal, their chimneys belching black smoke day and night. Exhaust gas with fluoride contaminated the air, irritating silkworms in mulberry fields. Besides, the kilns consumed huge quantities of earth, destroying large tracts of farmland.


Fortunately, the local government and people realized what was wrong before it was too late. In May 1999, Tongxiang decided to develop its tourism industry with the emphasis on protection of Wuzhen.


The first-phase restoration of old-style houses and construction of infrastructure facilities cost 50 million yuan (US$6.02 million).


In 2001, Wuzhen scenic area received 1.85 million domestic tourists and over 50,000 foreign tourists. The revenue from tourism shot up from a mere 230 million yuan (US$27.7 million) in 1999 to 2.04 billion yuan (US$245 million) in 2002. It came to 1.69 billion yuan (US$204 million) in 2003 despite the onslaught of a SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrom) epidemic that almost paralyzed major infected cities in China.


The second-phase project is nearly done, involving an investment of 100 million yuan (US$12 million). The ancient Wuzhen has been placed in the UNESCO list of potential sites of world cultural heritage.


"We have had a bittersweet experience in rural industrialization," Zheng Xiaoyan, an engineer with the Tongxiang City Environmental Bureau, said. "Industrial pollution was so bad that for a long time, there wasn't enough potable water for us."


Since 1998, the city has spent 132 million yuan (US$1.45 million) in disposing of industrial sewage. It has budgeted another 621 million yuan (US$74.8 million) for building nine centralized sewage disposal projects with a daily capacity of 170,000 cubic meters. At present, the finished projects can dispose of 110,000 cubic meters of sewage a day.


Local GDP has grown at an annual average of 15 percent since 1999. According to Zheng, the local government spent 2.19 percent of the 2002 local GDP, which was 14.727 billion yuan (US$1.77 billion), on environmental protection. "When our GDP rose to 17.692 billion yuan (US$2.13 billion) in 2003," she said, "the rate was computed at 1.73 percent."


Circulatory economy


It took the local government four years to set things right. Seventy-nine kilns were blown up. The remaining 51 kilns have continued to produce bricks, with silt and slag to supplement clay as raw materials. Moreover, slag with unburned coal can fuel the kilns, saving 111,600 tons of raw coal annually. Most of the silt obtained from dredging waterways has been used to produce bricks. Each year, the kilns produce 1.8 billion bricks, consuming 810,000 cubic meters of silt and 630,000 tons of slag together.


Farmyard manure and silkworm droppings collected in the area, which have amounted to 800,000 tons this year, are being used mostly as fertilizer. "A 'circulatory economy' is being built in our area," Zheng said, referring to an economy based on recycling waste for multi-purpose utilization.


"I believe the core of 'circulatory economy' is the maximum utilization of resources and the minimum pollution to the environment."


According to its eco-construction program, the city is planning to develop four major chains of "circulatory economy," which call for the multi-purpose use of slag, silt, farmyard manure, garbage and crop stalks that would otherwise cause environmental hazards.


Experts speak highly of Tongxiang's programme to develop a full-blown "circulatory economy."


Pan Jiahua said: "We must develop our economy. This task is of paramount importance for China. Meanwhile, we must make the best use of the resources available to us. Tongxiang shows that this can be done by turning waste into useful materials."


The GDP generated by Tongxiang may be called "green." Nationwide, however, it may take years to see a "green GDP" accounting system established.


Wu You, an official from the NBS said: "It's extremely difficult to assess the losses caused by the ecological destruction in monetary terms."


Despite that, the green GDP concept will be tested in six "geographically representative" pilot municipalities and provinces, which lie in the northeast, north, east, central south, southwest and northwest. A final list will be issued in early 2005.


Possibly, it could take up three to six years to establish a framework for a "green GDP" accounting system, Wu said. If all goes well, such a system, no matter how rudimentary, will be spread across the country by 2010.


(China Daily October 15, 2004)

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