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Working toward a better environment
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The report delivered to the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) by General Secretary Hu Jintao lists environmental resources as a chief problem China now faces. For the first time, the report touches on environmental protection in length; and for the first time, it includes conservation culture.

At present, many factors have caused serious environmental problems in China. One of them is the wrong view of development that takes pure GDP growth as the yardstick. Other factors include the lack of an evaluation system on environmental problems and the lack of an environmental monitoring system.

We now practise a sustainable development strategy. The important content of this strategy is industrial planning. And the evaluation of environmental impacts caused by such planning is what we mean by the term strategic environmental evaluation.

According to the requirements of main functional districts, the country's land space should form a harmonious structure with the economy, population, environment and resources. Large-scale industries should map out corresponding schemes with regard to the capacity of environmental resources. What we are doing now is what we did not do well in the past.

The steel and thermal power industries all prove that the environmental problems we are now facing has actually been caused by the lack of environmental impact evaluation in the past.

It is not easy to push forward strategic environmental evaluation in China, even with the Environmental Evaluation Law, that has been implemented for four years.

It took long time before the law itself was finally passed. During its formulation, furious debates took place for four years. The Standing Committee of the National People's Congress reviewed it three times before adoption.

Although many experts agreed to include environmental evaluation as part of the law, stipulating that environmental evaluation must be conducted on government plans that have an obvious impact on the environment, the outcome was a watered down version.

The main resistance to environmental evaluation was due to a conflict of interests. What the evaluation system stressed was long-term, overall interests which contradicted with the interests of different government bodies. These bodies pay more attention to examination and approval than planning, and seek fast growth in a relatively short time.

Due to these conflicts, many regions and government departments do not support or evade the responsibility of conducting environmental evaluation of industrial and regional development plans.

With more and more serious problems in environment and resources we cannot afford not to implement strategic environmental evaluation. We must not lose more time in pushing forward this work.

In the past several years we have made great efforts in promoting the evaluation system in different regions and industries. Despite great difficulties, we have made some progress. But this progress still has a long way to go.

I believe without strategic environmental evaluation, more energy-consuming and heavy-polluting industries will sprout up. Without evaluation, it will become more obvious that a city's construction and industrial development will overlap and their functions conflict.

Without environmental evaluation, more high-polluting industries will be transferred from the eastern parts of the country to the middle and western parts. Without a strategic environmental evaluation system, we cannot fundamentally solve the problem of a too high resource and environmental price for economic growth, as raised in the report by Hu.

And the lack of environmental evaluation also cannot establish firmly the concept of ecological civilization and cannot put the strategy of sustainable development into practice.

We will try our best to enhance coordination and communication between different departments and actively promote the legislation on environmental evaluation.

We will organize a group of experts to start environmental impact evaluations on key economic and technical policies. We will choose several key regions to start the evaluation on a trial basis, such as the resources-rich regions in the middle and upper reaches of the Yellow River, Beibu Gulf economic zone, Pan-Bohai Sea economic rim and the Chengdu and Chongqing economic zones.

We will also choose several key industries such as steel, petrochemical, power, paper-making and coal, to implement the environmental evaluation system.

The author is Pan Yue, vice-minister of State Environmental Protection Administration.

(China Daily November 22, 2007)

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