After green GDP, what next?

The battle to introduce green GDP in China is over, and the environment has lost.  Ma Jun reports.

With China’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) indicating there is no way green GDP data can be made public, and the report from the main green GDP study group "delayed indefinitely", it seems three years of efforts may have come to an end. The NBS’s decision, beyond their stated conviction that the calculation methods are undeveloped, is also influenced by the fact that no other country publishes official data of this type.

In many countries it would usually be NGOs that would calculate and publicise this kind of data, rarely governments. But at the same time, there are few countries like China, where local governments bear so much of the responsibility for balancing economic growth and environmental protection. For this reason, China is in greater need of a method for calculating "green GDP" if it is to realise sustainable development.

A government official’s job is to make the public richer. Economic development affects household incomes, employment and standards of living. and so most national governments use economic growth indexes like GDP to evaluate government performance, which reflects economic output and income levels. But if that growth is achieved at the cost of ruining the environment and wasting resources, this pollution and damage to health will not be reflected in GDP figures.


So why don’t western countries use a measure of "green GDP"? Because in practice, it is hard for their governments to solely pursue economic growth alone; their actions are limited by elected representatives and by the courts, not to mention by the voters. Local communities will refuse schemes that put the economy too far ahead of the environment – or even vice versa. A local government that opts to pollute the drinking water and poison the air for the sake of economic growth will find itself out of office at the next round of elections, and the incoming politicians will respond to local opinion and restore balance.

Because we evaluate the success of our officials in a different way, our local government officials bear more responsibility for that balance. In the west, public participation and the jockeying for influence of different interest groups both present local governments with a limited range of choices. In China, however, public participation is limited and officials are generally free to put their own plans into action; a combination of power and freedom that ensures this responsibility rests in their hands.

But unfortunately many of them fail to find this balance. GDP is seen as the only real goal, and is the main way of evaluating performance. This leads officials to reduce environmental requirements for new projects in order to attract polluting and dangerous industries; and then protect them from environmental regulators. The local environment might be polluted, but the increased local GDP results in the officials to blame being promoted. Therefore, the blind pursuit of increased GDP continues.

China’s central government has now made the scientific concept of development a higher priority than ever before, and stress the harmony between man and nature. But if that is to guide local government behaviour, the habit of only pursuing GDP must be broken, and that means changing the way in which official performance is evaluated. In today’s China, introducing green GDP calculations may be the cheapest of the practical options to achieve that end.

The plight of the green GDP project reflects the current conflict between the environment and the economy, and demonstrates how relying on one system alone is not enough to change current concepts of growth and government performance. The environmental authorities have long been aware of this, and as one of the leaders of the green GDP project said: “scientific green GDP data will help scientific policy-making; and public participation and democratic rule of law are the only way to ensure that policies serve the greater interest.” We should promote public participation in environmental protection, and I am sure that when local officials realise the depth of feeling about the environment they will realise the need for green GDP data.


This article first appeared in the Southern Metropolitan Daily 

Ma Jun is the director of Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, the organization that produces the China Water Pollution Map website, which was launched on September 14, 2006. He is also an environmental consultant with Sinosphere Corporation.


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