Chinese government officials Friday moved to dispel fears that their economic stimulus plan could compromise anti-pollution efforts as policies may be loosened to allow more projects to pass environmental examinations.
They promised the government would abide by strict environmental standards when evaluating new projects, control the development of highly polluting enterprises, encourage energy efficiency and consider levying an environment tax.
"We did not lower our requirements for environmental protection while using 'fast-track' procedures to approve certain proposed projects," Minister of Environmental Protection Zhou Shengxian said, referring to speculation that such procedures were used to approve polluting projects.
"Only those projects that comply with environmental standards can enjoy this procedure, which can improve the efficiency of economic construction," Zhou said at a forum to mark the annual World Environment Day on Friday.
A meeting presided by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao also pledged Friday that China will continue its massive elimination of backward industrial facilities in 2009 to save energy and cut pollution in a bid to address climate change.
"The work to reduce the emission of carbon dioxide and to address climate change will be incorporated into the overall plan for economic and social development in China," said a resolution adopted by the meeting.
China will play an active and constructive role in the upcoming United Nations' climate change conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, at the end of this year, which will be a vital chance for international community to decide on the future of human society, it said.
The Chinese government announced its 4-trillion-yuan stimulus package in November to boost domestic demand and economic growth amid global downturn. The money will be mainly spent on new highways, railways, housing, schools, hospitals and environmental protection projects.
The Ministry of Environmental Protection is responsible for examining environmental impacts of planned projects before they can get approval to start.
Vice minister Zhang Lijun said the ministry did speed up approval procedures for some projects because maintaining steady economic growth was in the nation's "overall interest."
But those projects had limited impact on the environment, he said.
"The majority of the 4-trillion-yuan investment will be spent on infrastructure, and projects to improve the ecological environment and living standards," Zhang said at a press conference here Friday.
"There is no single industrial project in the stimulus plan," he said.
"I don't see environmental problems in the stimulus plan because we have set a 'firewall' to block projects that could cause serious pollution or consume too much energy and natural resources."
The Environmental Protection Ministry approved environmental evaluation reports of 365 projects, involving a total investment of 1.44 trillion yuan between November last year and May.
It also rejected or suspended 29 chemical, petrochemical, steel and coal-burning power generation projects, citing their high energy consumption and high pollution. The total cost of the projects was estimated at 146.79 billion yuan.
The ministry will carry out inspections on projects covered by the stimulus plan to check how they comply with certain requirements for environmental protection in the second half of this year .
"As far as we know, the implementation of the approved projects is going well (in terms of environmental protection)," Zhang said.
In the first quarter, emissions of sulfur dioxide, a major air pollutant, dropped by 4.9 percent and chemical oxygen demand (COD), a measure of water pollution, fell 2.9 percent from the same period last year.
Zhang said this was achieved through comprehensive steps to control emissions and improve the structure of industries.
However, a government report released Friday showed the country still faces grave environmental problems, with lakes, rivers and the air in many places seriously polluted.
China classifies water quality in major rivers and lakes into six levels, ranging from level I, which is good enough to be used as a source of drinking water, to level VI, which is too polluted to be used even for farm irrigation.
The quality of the water sampled in 20 percent of 409 monitoring stations set up along 200 rivers, including the Yangtze and the Yellow rivers, averaged level VI, said the report on China's environment in 2008.
In 519 cities that monitor air quality, air quality in 113 cities throughout 2008 averaged "slightly polluted" and the air in seven cities was often heavily polluted.
Zhang admitted some enterprises and regions ignored government bans on new construction projects without environmental evaluation.
"We certainly object to this and will try our best to prevent such things," he said.