The power of public disclosure

Fixing a nation’s environmental crisis takes more than top-down decrees, writes Ma Jun. Beijing must harness the strength of open information.

The most notable aspect of China’s 11th Five-Year Plan was the inclusion for the first time of targets for energy saving and emissions cuts – targets which, as the plan’s period draws to a close, are set to be achieved.  

But it hasn’t been easy. In 2006, the plan’s first year, Qu Geping, who was the first director of the State Environmental Protection Agency (now the Ministry of Environmental Protection), was blunt: in 25 years, we have never met an environmental target, he said. And in that year, both target indices were rising rather than falling, leading to widespread doubts about the chances of success.

State Council leaders ordered that the targets stay firm, however, and the environmental authorities, overcoming many difficulties, finally forced chemical oxygen demand (COD) – a measure of water pollution – and sulphur-dioxide emissions onto a downward path. This was achieved by eliminating outdated industrial capacity, putting new pollution-treatment equipment in place and proposing innovative methods of calculating emissions reductions.

Falling emissions caused river cross-section COD intensity and urban sulphur-dioxide levels to fall somewhat, with environmental quality in some areas seeing a certain amount of improvement. But pollution is still relatively serious in about half of the nation’s rivers, while atmospheric quality in one third of China’s cities fails to meet health standards.

The main reason for this is that, while the 11th Five-Year Plan’s targets rely on two indices – COD and sulphur dioxide – China’s water and atmospheric pollution are affected by a range of pollutants. A Ministry of Environmental Protection official recently indicated that, during the 12th Five-Year Plan period, more pollutants will be subject to overall limits, with targets set for reductions in the release of ammonium nitrate and nitrogen oxides in addition to COD and sulphur dioxide. At the same time, greater priority will be given to emissions cuts through restructuring, engineering and management.

But this is not enough to deal with the dire state of the environment. First, increasing the scope of targets to cover four pollutants still leaves the question: what about the rest? What about the 12 million tonnes of harmful heavy metals that pollute our food? If these are not included in the 12th Five-Year Plan, won’t local government just ignore them?

Second, the latest figures for China’s total pollutant emissions are far above earlier estimates. In February this year, the Ministry of Environmental Protection and other authorities published a report on the first nationwide survey of sources of pollution, showing that total COD emissions for 2007 were 30.2896 million tonnes – more than double the previous figure of 13.818 million tonnes.

So why can’t more indices be included in the 12th Five-Year Plan? Why can’t we set tougher targets for cuts in all pollutants? The explanation is that the success of the 11th Five-Year Plan relied on the determination of central government: emission reductions were included in assessment of local-government performance and so some officials applied extreme measures such as cutting off power to industry. But, at local-government level, GDP is still the priority and there has been no change in the means of economic growth. Independent factors, including a lack of financing, mean overall control of pollutants and tougher emissions targets will not simply fall into place.

To relieve the tension between energy-saving and emissions-reduction on the one hand and economic growth on the other, we need to look for potential drivers beyond government orders and limits. Experience in western nations shows that economic measures are one recourse: using economic stimuli to control pollution by, for example, raising resource costs or introducing pollution-trading mechanisms. But, in practice, there are many factors limiting changes to energy or raw-material costs and the space for doing so is limited.

Given this, more attention needs to be paid to another method – a proven and highly cost-effective pollution control measure: openness of environmental information. This method originated in the 1980s, when the United States was facing high levels of a range of different toxic pollutants. To control these hundreds of different substances, Congress decided not to set stricter emissions standards or overall pollution limits, but instead to pass the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act. This required US firms to file a Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) annually, informing the public of what toxic chemicals it had released into the environment. 

The first TRI was released in 1988 and, before long, the US media and environmental groups were exposing and drawing public attention to the worst polluters. USA Today used two full pages to list the “Toxic 500”. The National Wildlife Federation exposed the 500 worst polluters nationwide, while the Natural Resources Defense Council used the TRI to name and shame 1,500 major polluters. Subsequently, the Environmental Defense Fund created a website allowing the public to see the degree of pollution in their area and which firms were causing it.

Faced with public pressure and negative publicity, many firms took action to cut toxic releases and improve their standing on those lists. For example, after the 1988 TRI publication, agricultural giant Monsanto undertook to cut toxic discharges by its subsidiaries by 90% – and it came very close to doing so. Information on toxic pollution often increases public pressure, and this encourages firms to be more proactive in prevention and treatment. Between 1988 and 1999, total emissions of the 340 types of chemical covered by the act fell by 45.5%. The release of TRI information was an important factor in achieving this.

Similarly, in 2000, the European Union put in place a Pollutant Release and Transfer Register in order to provide regular information on the release of pollutants into the air, soil and water, or their transfer, thus ensuring the public’s right to know and participate. China’s neighbours Japan and Korea have similar systems.

Since 2003, China has implemented a series of regulations and policies, including the Measures on Environmental Information Disclosure, promoting the release of environmental information and providing an important basis for public participation in the prevention of pollution. In March, 2007, more than 20 environmental organisations concerned about corporate environmental performance decided to use government regulatory information as the basis of a campaign for green choices, promoting green consumption and the establishment of green supply chains. Today, 35 environmental organisations are involved.

The public pressure created by information disclosure has caused over 300 firms in breach of regulations to explain why the problems arose and the measures taken to resolve them. Fifty have submitted to third-party verification, monitored by the environmental organisations. Many businesses have come up with practical or even innovative proposals during this process, resulting in a reduction of overall emissions – not just intensity – and cutting not just typical pollution but also heavy-metal discharge.

Both international experience and existing Chinese practice show that the disclosure of environmental information can promote widespread social participation in pollution control – and that this is the most cost-effective way of cutting emissions. Success for the 11th Five-Year Plan’s energy-saving and emissions-reduction targets is at hand, but the method of economic growth has not changed and emissions of pollutants remain high. There are huge challenges in store for the 12th Five-Year Plan.

Alongside a continued push to strengthen traditional government orders and limits and economic measures, we should give real thought to environmental information disclosure – a new type of environmental-management measure. China has made great progress in the disclosure of government data, but there is a clear gap between China and the major industrial nations when it comes to the publication of information on corporate emissions data. The pressing task is to establish a system to publish this information. With government, the public and business working together, the 12th Five-Year Plan can make even greater progress on energy-saving and emissions-reduction.


Ma Jun is director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs.

Homepage image from Greenpeace