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ENVIRONMENT-CHINA: ‘World Must Share Blame for Industrial Pollution’

Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, Nov 21 2006 (IPS) - Repeatedly cited for pollution, China has launched a counter-attack saying it is mainly because the country has been the world’s workshop in the past twenty years, producing and exporting goods for a multitude of nations, while keeping the waste and ecological degradation for itself.

A high-profile report released by a governmental think tank in Beijing, last week, berated current trade patterns, which resulted in China bearing the brunt of heavy pollution.

“China is the major venue of resource consumption and pollution as well as the main victim in the current economic and trade pattern,” the report, titled “Review and Perspective of the Environment and Development of China” said.

Prepared by a group of experts at the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development, the report said all parties in the product chain, including manufacturers, traders and consumers, should share responsibility for ecological degradation.

The report rejected accusations by environmental watchdogs that China was destroying tropical forests by importing timber from South-east Asia, pointing out that 70 percent of the timber was being made into furniture that ended up in shops in the United States and the European Union.

“We import the raw material, produce, send the products abroad and keep the waste and pollution ourselves,” Shen Guofang, an expert with the think-tank was quoted as saying by the media at the release of the report.


He warned that China’s environmental record was about to get even worse as many high-polluting industries, like iron and steel, cement and construction were being relocated from the developed countries to China.

“The shift of industries is also the shift of global pollutants,” Shen said. “While they (developed countries) have less environmental pressure, China has more.”

The study found that imports of waste utilised as raw materials, such as steel scraps and waste paper, have been rapidly rising. In 2004 for instance, the amount of waste imported by China – 33 million tones – represented a seven-fold increase from the 4.58 million tonnes in 1996.

The report comes at a time when China’s environmental woes and their global impact have moved to the forefront of world news. China’s dynamic economic engine is spewing an increasing number of pollutants, which scientists say contribute to global warming. The country now ranks behind only the U.S. in carbon dioxide emissions. It is also the biggest emitter of sulphur dioxide, which causes acid rain.

But Chinese scholars argue the amount of emissions is not surprising given the country’s rapid economic growth and its dependence on coal consumption. China relies on coal for 70 percent of its energy needs.

The United Nations’ latest Human Development Report has cited China on worsening water pollution and its failure to restrict heavy polluters. More than 300 million people, almost a quarter of the population lack access to clean drinking water and more than half of the country’s water resources have been severely tainted by pollution.

“As the needs of consumers, agricultural and industrial production are pitted against one another in a booming economy, these problems can be expected to grow worse, not better,” Alessandra Tisot, senior deputy resident representative of the UN Development Programme in China said at a news conference, last week.

Water pollution is regarded as one of the most severe challenges China faces in its environmental clean up. Yet here too China has found that international companies rank among the violators of the government’s environmental guidelines.

More than 30 multinational corporations (MNCs) with operations in China have violated water-pollution control guidelines, according to an investigation of official records conducted by the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs.

The institute, a domestic environmental non government organisation (NGO), found that some 34 MNCs, including Pepsi Co Inc, Panasonic Battery Co and Foster’s Group Ltd, were reported by government bodies at local and national levels as causing water pollution.

While foreign violators represent a small fraction of the publicised 2,700 violators, Ma Jun, the institute’s founder and director, said the findings created a stir with Chinese public. Nearly all of the MNCs cited were known for their commitment to protect the environment.

“You can’t claim to be a responsible international corporation if you fail the emissions control,” he said.

The role of MNCs in China’s notorious pollution problems was highlighted by the state news agency Xinhua and various domestic media, which published the results of the institute’s survey. Xinhua News agency blamed local governments for their lax environmental controls that allowed MNCs to foul the water and the air.

While Beijing is trying to reign in unbridled economic growth in order to reduce energy consumption and cut major pollutants, many local governments have set double-digit growth targets, much higher than the officially projected target of 7.5 percent for the next five years.

But pursuing single-minded economic growth is proving to be costly. Much of the country’s recent swell in protests and social unrest has been provoked by water and land pollution.

“The paradise that China is proving for foreign companies can’t last forever,” warned Ma Jun. “We are dumping the pollution into our own backyard and people are suffering.”

 
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