China Gradually Improves Environmental Transparency

Fuzhou lakeVery little is known about pollution levels throughout China, despite the country's worsening air quality and imperiled waterways.

In 2006, Chinese environmentalist Ma Jun estimated that 100 cities nationwide provided no public data on water pollution.

Two years later, the Ministry of Environmental Protection authorized its Measures on Open Environmental Information, a new effort at public disclosure. The freedom-of-information law requires municipalities to provide details on which companies violated pollution regulations or caused large pollution incidents, as well as how much contamination these polluters discharged into the environment.

The measure has been implemented for a year, and cities across China are slowly becoming more forthright with environmental information, according to a study by U.S. and Chinese environmental groups.

The Pollution Information Transparency Index (PITI), a partnership of Ma's Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs and the U.S. Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), filed information requests with 113 cities in September 2008. The groups requested lists of polluters that received punishment and of local residents who filed environmental complaints.

The PITI rated the cities on a 100-point scale based on their compliance with the disclosure requests, responses to citizen petitions, and public records of environmental violations.

Of the 113 cities, only four ranked higher than 60: Ningbo in Zhejiang province, Hefei in Anhui province, Fuzhou in Fujian province, and Wuhan in Hubei province, the groups reported.

Most cities have only recently begun efforts at transparency, but some are already responding to information requests, said Alex Wang, an NRDC lawyer. "For those people who say China is not able to do good disclosure or have a transparent government...our index says that is not true," Wang said.

Although China's largest cities, Beijing and Shanghai, did not rank highly on the index overall, Wang noted that specific local efforts can serve as examples for other municipalities. Shanghai ranked first in disclosure of environmental violations due largely to its daily monitoring and supervision system. Beijing ranked first in disclosure of environmental complaints.

Smaller cities are also demonstrating reform. Weihai in Shandong province was the first city to publish pollution levels on its Web site, which the city updates every hour. Changzhou in Jiangsu province publishes environmental violations in the local government-owned media.

But these cities remain the minority. "There is still a lot of non-disclosure right now," Wang said.

Three out of four cities surveyed did not fulfill the disclosure requests. Some cities responded that disclosure would reveal corporate secrets or compromise economic growth, the report said.

Cities with poorer air quality were less likely to disclose pollution information, the study found. "Maybe cities that are more polluting don't want that known," Wang said. "We're still doing further analysis to understand that."

Cities that were more developed economically generally performed better on the PITI. Overall, the 56 cities surveyed in eastern China, a wealthier region, averaged 36.1 points. The 34 cities studied in central China averaged 27.7 points, and the 23 western China cities scored an average 22.6 points.

Deborah Seligsohn, the World Resources Institute's China program director, said that Chinese laws come into practice gradually, suggesting that full disclosure may require several more years.

"Information disclosure is very new in China and results are quite mixed, but institutionalizing the principle in this law is a major step," Seligsohn said.

The United States and China agreed in June to enhance cooperation on climate change and energy issues. The initial memorandum of understanding focused mostly on technology cooperation, however, rather than on measures to improve government transparency.

But technology support may not be sufficient. Elizabeth Economy, director of Asian studies with the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, said that measures to improve Chinese government transparency will be an important component in reducing greenhouse gases and other forms of pollution.

"As the U.S. considers how best to assist China in moving aggressively to combat climate change, building in effective monitoring and compliance incentives and constraints will be essential," Economy said during a Congressional testimony [PDF] she gave earlier this summer.

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.

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