Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Environment, Europe, Headlines

CHINA: The Air Hasn’t Quite Cleared

Tarjei Kidd Olsen

OSLO, Aug 25 2008 (IPS) - While China’s dramatic last-minute measures to cut pollution during the Beijing Olympics grabbed headlines, a little publicised Norwegian project in Guizhou province shows just how difficult it will be to make lasting changes.

The project appears to have made some real headway in Zunyi – one of China’s most polluted cities about 1,600 km south-west of Beijing in Guizhou, one of China’s poorest provinces – but a new report shows that donor incompetence, local corruption, and China’s economic rise pose serious challenges.

Spearheaded by the Norwegian Pollution Control Authority in cooperation with the Environmental Protection Bureau (EPB) in Zunyi, the project focuses on training pollution monitors and improving information management at the EPB, as well as raising awareness among large industrial polluters.

“Zunyi has high levels of industrial activity and serious problems with pollution that need to be dealt with. It was decided to embark on this project as the local environmental authorities had very little capacity or skills to handle the problems themselves,” Hans Olav Ibrekk at Norway’s development agency Norad told IPS.

Ibrekk and two of his colleagues have written a report on the project in Zunyi, which is due to finish at the end of September following a three-year run.

“The main focus has been on training the inspectors to do a better job when examining local factories. This has involved everything from equipping them with simple measuring instruments to refocusing their attention on the production process as a whole instead of just the pollution that comes out of the pipes,” Ibrekk said.

The hope is that by pushing factories to focus on the production process, they will be able to reduce pollution more effectively than if they simply try to filter the pollutants as they are released into the sea and air.

“It’s about making better use of chemicals, saving electricity, reducing emissions, and generally making the process more effective. Norway and Europe have evolved similarly in their approaches,” he said.

The project has focused on 22 factories identified as strong polluters. Inspectors visit the factories at least once a month, while the worst offenders are examined more closely.

With the new instruments the inspectors can measure emission levels at the factories, but also pollution levels in the local air and sea, which in turn give a more complete picture of total emissions by each factory.

“The project seems to have succeeded in establishing a relatively good dialogue between the inspectors and factory owners and directors, who seem to understand that cleaning up their production processes is not so expensive, and can be economically beneficial over time,” Ibrekk explained.

Despite the progress that has been achieved, the Norad report shows that the project has also been hampered by a series of weaknesses.

One of the most serious issues relates to the lack of a proper exit strategy. Such a strategy should ensure that everything that has been learned by the environmental authorities will not simply be confined to the 20 inspectors that have been trained by Norway.

The long-term goal is that the lessons of the project will be spread further afield than Zunyi, but the inspectors in the other EPBs in Guizhou – around 50 according to the report – have only received very basic training. This is particularly problematic as the 20 inspectors that have been schooled have not been taught according to the ‘train-the-trainer’ approach, which would have made it easier for them to go on to train others in the future.

“Those we interviewed didn’t believe that any of the 20 inspectors would be able to pass on their knowledge to inspectors in EPBs in other towns around the province in an effective way. The project was not designed to include train-the-trainer, but we think that it should have been,” said Ibrekk.

One of the main aims of the project has been to ensure that it can be replicated across the country. This was meant to be the responsibility of China’s State Environmental Protection Administration, but as it has only attended high-level meetings and has not followed the day to day running of the project, Ibrekk doubts that such a national project will be possible.

“Our conclusion is that this will be a city-level, and partially provincial-level intervention, but with little effect on the central level,” Ibrekk said.

He believes that the fundamental problem is that the project is small and has been somewhat sidelined by rapidly changing national policies under the new wave of environmental awareness that has spread through the country in recent years.

Because of an outdated project plan which was finalised more than two years before the project began, as well as a rigid project framework not suited to adaptation, the initiative quickly found itself outmanoeuvred by events in the world.

“The Chinese really seem dedicated to the project even though they had to finance large parts of it themselves. This indicates that it is something they find important, so I’m sure it will have a lasting impact in Zunyi,” Ibrekk said.

“We will just have to cross our fingers and hope that some of the lessons will spread to the other EPB’s in Guizhou, and yes, pray to higher forces that they will also have some effect on a national level – which could happen if one manages to document some concrete environmental results from the project, and if we get a proper exit strategy for ensuring that more inspectors are trained.”

However, it is somewhat doubtful that the project participants will have time to prepare a proper exit strategy before the project ends next month, Ibrekk points out.

The problems are not confined to the project itself, however. Chinese corruption is also a challenge. While improved reporting mechanisms have made it easier for the inspectors in Zunyi to catch and fine those that do not comply with environmental regulations, it is unclear to what extent this is enough to make well-connected polluters clean up their act.

“There is of course a real danger here. As some of these factories are state-owned, with cosy relationships with local administrators and inspectors, it is not clear that they will be fined, or will care about it,” Ibrekk warned.

“We didn’t receive a satisfactory answer to our questions about penalties for the polluters, so there is some reason to doubt the fundamental willingness of the system to carry out measures. Having said that, the Beijing Olympics have demonstrated that when they want, the authorities are willing to make a huge effort to curb pollution, but it is questionable whether this applies way out in Zunyi.”

To minimise pollution in Beijing during this year’s Olympics, the government halved the number of cars on the road, and banned most industrial activity. While this may have had some effect in the short term, it seems likely that other measures will have to be implemented for more lasting change.

“The actions that have been taken for the Olympics are definitely not sustainable if they are to be combined with economic development. It is clear that other measures have to be taken,” Ibrekk said.

“Of course, China is in the same situation that we in the north were in a few decades ago, with high levels of industrial emissions. They will either have to implement some radically new initiatives, or solve the problem through long-term economic development, as we did. But that takes a long time, and so the question is whether we can help them to skip some of the steps we had to follow.

“I doubt it will be possible in Beijing, where one thousand new cars hit the streets every day – an enormous figure. But they have a right to do that, as we did. The question is whether it will have such serious repercussions for their own environment that they will be forced to adjust course.”

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