China vows to rein in polluters 'urgently'

Published April 28, 2007

BEIJING - For China's big polluters, the freewheeling days of getting rewarded while dumping waste into the skies and waters of this booming land may be coming to an end - if Premier Wen Jiabao has his way.

China's 3-decade-old economic surge has left rivers, streams and coastlines polluted by industrial and farm chemicals and domestic sewage. Cities are enveloped in smog.

In a speech Friday to other top Chinese leaders, Wen said it was time to act, both to clean the environment and to combat global warming, and he zeroed in on tax breaks and discounts on land and electricity given to highly polluting industries.

"More work on energy conservation and emissions reduction is urgently required to deal with global climate change, " Wen said. "Our country is a major coal producer and consumer, and reducing polluting emissions is a responsibility we should bear."

China's coal habit has made it a major contributor to greenhouse gases, mainly carbon dioxide, which scientists say contribute to global warming.

China accounted for 15 percent of the world's greenhouse gases in 2000, second to the United States' 21 percent, but the fast-growing Chinese economy is expected to surpass the U.S. in emissions in the next couple of years.

Wen noted that China has failed to meet earlier goals to reduce emissions and conserve energy.

It committed itself to cutting 20 percent of its energy use for every unit of gross domestic product by 2010, but last year it failed to meet the first phase - a 4 percent reduction. Instead, energy use fell by only 1.2 percent. Sulfur dioxide and other polluting emissions, meanwhile, are supposed to fall by 10 percent by 2010, but last year they rose slightly.

Beijing often has difficulty ensuring that conservation initiatives are enforced at the local level, where many officials reap the rewards of China's rapid industrialization.

"The question is how are they actually going to implement it?" asked Elizabeth Economy, an Asia specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "What exactly will they put in place to make it more difficult for local bank officials to approve those local steel plants, small coal mines and concrete factories?"