Smog-choked China shifts gears in effort to reverse environmental damage

Smog-choked China shifts gears in effort to reverse environmental damage
Amid public outcry over China’s increasingly unsustainable levels of pollution and environmental destruction, the government is reconsidering its ‘economic growth at all cost’ strategy.

The ruling Communist Party has announced it will place more emphasis on environmental protection when monitoring the performance of local officials, holding them directly responsible for excessive levels of pollution and ecological damage, Reuters reported.

The document draws an "ecological protection red line" under the world’s second-largest economy that would apply the brakes on economic development in environmentally vulnerable regions, among other major changes announced last week, including easing the country’s one-child law.

The campaign will guide local authorities away from the pursuit of economic growth at all costs while punishing polluters to reverse the ecological damage done by three decades of unchecked economic growth.

China’s phenomenal economic growth has a tendency to leave one breathless; unfortunately, that is more of a literal statement than some people may realize. Just this month, Chinese doctors blamed high levels of air pollution for an eight-year-old girl contracting lung disease - the country’s youngest person ever to acquire a disease normally confined to the elderly.

The girl, whose name has been withheld by the authorities, lives near a smog-choked road in the eastern province of Jiangsu, said Xinhuanet, the website of China's official news agency.

It is not just air quality that concerns the Communist Party. As public opinion reaches boiling point over dangerous smog, contaminated soil and poisoned water supplies, China is worried the problems may eventually lead to social instability.

The new policy document said China would "correct the bias towards assessing [officials] on the speed of economic growth and increase the weight placed on other indicators such as resource use, environmental damage, ecological benefits, industrial overcapacity, scientific innovation, work safety and newly-added debt."

Although Beijing already assesses local authorities on the way they handle the environment, the economy is king.

"Before, they were just using environmental protection as another way of generating economic growth and even if something causes a great deal of immediate environmental damage, they would still consider the short-term economic benefits," Zhou Lei at Nanjing University, who studies the impact of industry on the environment, told Reuters.

The campaign will also make adaptations to the country's environmental protection laws, which are expected to be published soon and will give environmental agencies new powers to punish polluters, as well as improve the way the Chinese government monitors the situation across the country.

Zhou, however, believes the new rules do not go far enough.

"In my opinion, it is typical Chinese lip service and should not be treated seriously," he said. "What will really solve the current environmental degradation is to systematically re-appraise all the problematic projects and let justice be served regarding all the perpetrators."