While the National Bureau of Statistics Director Li Deshui announced the country's gross domestic product (GDP) achieved 9.5 percent growth in 2004, he stressed that the figure had been double checked and approved by a group of experts after it was calculated by the provincial and central statistics departments.
This makes sense but hopefully, in several years, the figure will also be modified by experts to take into account what it has cost the country to achieve.
That is to say, the cost of environmental damage and the natural resources consumed as part of annual development would become a factor when calculating our GDP.
In this sense, the figure would become a "green GDP," which could better indicate the real growth of the economy.
Many admire China's vigorous growth over the past decade over 9 percent on average, but the horrific impact on the environment because of the single-minded pursuit of economic growth is also astonishing.
Extensive economic growth not only demands a huge input of resources, but also creates severe pollution.
In many specific cases, the economic returns created by industrial enterprises are less than the cost of treating the pollution they emit.
Under the current mechanism of measuring the economy, the returns are included while the emissions are ignored.
With an unprecedented awareness of the importance of sustainable development, the country has started from the central government to local authorities to accept the concept of "greener" economic growth.
The State Environmental Protection Administration has been working on introducing such a concept into the GDP in recent years.
It has also created a three-step timetable to establish a framework for calculating the green GDP throughout the country in three to six years.
According to the timetable, well-chosen provinces or municipalities would carry out pilot programs to calculate their green GDP from 2004 to 2006.
And their experiences would become valuable references for other regions.
Although there has been no official disclosure of the pilot regions, Zhejiang Province in east China, Shanxi Province in the north, Chongqing Municipality in the southwest and Guangdong Province in the south, are all reportedly prime candidates.
Several others are said to be applying to be put on the list.
The reaction is more than expected. In practice, officials know a green GDP will help them get a clearer picture of what is produced during daily economic operations.
Gao Minxue, professor of statistics at the Renmin University of China, says decision-makers get the wrong ideas about economic prosperity and structure when GDPs have not taken into account environmental factors.
It may lead to over-optimism, which could have dangerous consequences both for development and on the environment.
Admittedly more than enthusiasm is needed before a green GDP can become the norm.
A team jointly set up by the environmental protection administration and bureau of statistics is working on the technical details of calculating a green GDP.
There are also several other teams, organized by provincial authorities, which are trying to tackle the problem.
Their difficulties are obvious. Even after efforts in the last two to three decades by scientists around the world, there is not a universally accepted standard for what to deduct and how to deduct from the current GDP calculations.
In August, Dong Jibin, deputy director of the Academy of Social Sciences in Shanxi Province, declared a team at the academy had worked out a standard for green GDP calculation.
Under those calculations, 66.6 percent of the province's gross product of 200.2 billion yuan (US$24.2 billion) in 2002 was "green."
Months later, an official from the bureau of statistics in Shanxi expressed his doubt about this result, saying the bureau ended up with a different figure by using a method they had devised.
It is a noble concept, but it will not be achieved without dedication and disagreement.
Currently, only pollution treatments are calculated in drafts of the pilot programs, like the costs of processing polluted air and water, and treating solid waste in cities. The value of natural resources is still not counted.
Many are worried that if a final formula is agreed upon, it will not put enough emphasize on value of resources, making the green GDP less valid.
Another difficulty is that usually only economically advanced regions would have enough statistics to complete a green calculation.
But the real problem is that the less developed regions rely more on natural resources and pay less attention to pollution. The "magical" numbers that should be deducted from their GDPs are much higher than in advanced regions.
The absence of the figures takes away the less-developed regions' opportunities to measure their economies.
These are only several among the raft of many problems that need to be resolved before a green GDP can be announced with confidence.
So far, there are no accounting methods that can establish the exact worth of a forest that maintains the balance of an ecosystem, or what it is worth to protect soil and water.
However, the end figure is not the real purpose of all the painstaking efforts. Instead, it should be to promote awareness of the environment and natural resources, which humans exploit for gains.
But no matter to what degree a green GDP can actually measure environmental costs, it is a positive step towards the final goal of more sustainable development.
(China Daily February 2, 2005)