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Ecology vital for scientific outlook of development
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Strategic environmental assessment (SEA) can provide the most powerful support system for China to realize sustainable development and establish a conservation culture, said Pan Yue, deputy director of the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA).

Q: Why do you think strategic environmental assessment (SEA) is important for China?

A: SEA can provide the most powerful support system for China to realize sustainable development and establish a conservation culture. President Hu Jintao said in his political report at the just concluded 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) that the country would promote a conservation culture on its way to building a moderately prosperous society. It's believed to be the first such call in a keynote political document.

The culture of conservation needs harmony among the economy, the people, the environment and resources, based on different functions of environmental resources. To reach such harmony, it needs SEA that stresses integration of environmental consideration with land-resources development and industrial development plans.

SEA is the most effective and fundamental measure to curb environmental deterioration caused by unscientific plans of industrial distribution and structure.

What the country is going to do today is what it failed to yesterday. Take the outbreak of blue algae in East China's Taihu Lake this year, for example. The basic reason for the algae outbreak is the high density of industrial development (around the lake) - about 10 plants per square km, a high population density (more than 1,000 people per square km). That's much more than the capacity the local environment can handle. Lack of environmental planning has led to such a state.

Without SEA, projects that consume high amounts of energy and cause heavy pollution will be started without a thought for the environment. Without SEA, there will be more conflicts between urban construction and industrial development and the environment. Without SEA, the gap of environmental quality between the east and west will widen. And without SEA, environmental management of river basins and ecological regions will keep suffering because of administrative split.

Q: You have said the biggest difficulty in curbing pollution emission is the rampant development of heavy industries. Which industries need to have SEA urgently?

A: Thermal power generation, iron and steel, coal-chemical, petrochemical, electrolyte aluminum, cement, coke, calcium carbide and iron alloy are in urgent need of SEA.

Take thermal power industry for example. Four years ago, the installed capacity of thermal power generation was more than 300 gigawatts (GW). Today it's more than 600 GW. And in the next five years, it is estimated to reach 1,200 GW.

The fast growth has not gone through a prudent plan. Even the distribution and structure haven't. The Yangtze River and Pearl River deltas, and the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region have a high concentration of thermal power plants, causing serious air pollution.

Moreover, the structure of the power industry is not proper. By the end of last year, units using renewable energy only accounted for 0.12 percent of China's total power generation capacity. Small power units below 100 megawatts (MW) made up nearly 24 percent of the total, creating a big obstacle in the country's energy-saving and pollution-reducing goal.

The problem is caused by lack of environmental planning.

Q: Energy, especially coal, supports the development of heavy industries. Of late, several big energy bases have come up in Northwest China. The region is ecologically very important. So how do we harmonize energy and ecology through SEA?

A: The situation is very serious. In recent years, the Ningxia Hui and Inner Mongolia autonomous regions and Shaanxi Province, which are rich in coal in the upper and middle reaches of the Yellow River, have initiated ambitious plans for energy and chemical projects.

For example, the city of Ordos in Inner Mongolia has set up four duplicated coal-chemical bases. Ordos plans to produce 200 million tons of coal and 7 million tons of coal-chemical products, as well as have 15 GW of installed power generation capacity by 2010.

How do we unify the distribution plan of the coal-chemical industry across provinces? How do we solve the problems of demand for and insufficiency of water? And how do we stop the ecological deterioration caused by chemical plants? To tackle all these we need SEA.

Q: Several conflicts have been reported between urban life and industrial operation in recent years. Can we solve them through SEA?

A: Most cities in China didn't take environment into consideration while chalking out their urban development plan. Some of the plans were mapped out without much thought, such as developing real estate in industrial bases, or setting up plants among communities. Because of the high cost involved in demolishing or removing them, it's hard to get rid of them now. Residents living nearby such plants have been exposed to high environmental risks, sometimes leading to large-scale accidents.

Environmental impact assessment has to be introduced into urban development plans to solve the problem. Intensive public participation, too, is needed. That's the reason for SEPA's insistence on integrating public participation into the draft of SEA regulation.

Q: If the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) does not approve of such urban plans, will the environmental protection authorities have the power to suspend them?

A: No. SEPA does not have that right. Independent environmental assessment institutions conduct SEA. Only after that does SEPA summon its related departments to study the SEA report provided by them and give its final suggestions on environmental protection for a development plan.

But adopting the SEA report and suggestions from environmental officials have to be decided by local governmental departments in charge of the plan, such as local development and reform commissions and transport departments.

Q: If SEA has no decisive influence in rejecting a plan that poses potential threat to the environment, as you said, why do you still try to promote SEA?

A: Despite not having the crucial influence, promotion of SEA still has its positive impacts. It enables discussion on issues related to urban planning, which were not open to the public before. This is the biggest achievement: giving the public access.

The Environmental Impact Assessment Law only gives a guideline for SEA. It doesn't have the authority to put it into practise. The SEA draft regulation will work out the detailed measures.

Q: Legislation of SEA regulation was started two years ago. But it's yet to be completed. Why is the process so slow? Did it meet some obstacles?

A: The SEA regulation was expected to be completed in September this year. But it has been postponed because of differing voices from different sides.

Frankly speaking, the legislation has met some obstacles, mostly because of concerns of short-term interests. Since SEA stresses long-term interests and sustainable development, it contradicts the pursuit of quick gains of some locals and departments.

Q: Has deferring of the SEA legislation made people compare it with the delay in the issuing of the 2006 environmentally adjusted GDP report?

A: The two are not comparable. But efforts to establish a scientific outlook of development and conservation culture will be painstaking in China because they will break the existing structure of gains and devise new rules. It's like playing a game. But if the setback can be traded for any achievement, I am confident to hit the target in the end.

I have urged all the departments involved to cooperate and push forward the legislation because that would expand environmental protection administration's authority. And that's the demand of scientific outlook of development.

(China Daily November 13, 2007)

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