China Issues Annual “State of the Environment Report” - Ministry Calls Situation “Very Grave”

As it has for over a decade, previously as the State Environmental Protection Administration and since 2008 as the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), China’s MEP issued its annual “State of the Environment Report” last week. In presenting the 2010 report at a press conference on Friday, June 3, Vice Minister Li Ganjie frankly stated that while some environmental indicators “kept on turning better” – mainly sulfur dioxide emissions – “the overall environmental situation is still very grave and is facing many difficulties and challenges.”

The 2010 report is now online in Chinese as is Vice Minister Li’s press conference. In English, readers can find a Xinhua press report summarizing the points Li highlighted at the press conference, as well as a “report card” at the Guardian Environment Blog. While the Guardian piece emphasizes the poor state of much of China’s environment, readers should also note some trends in areas where the numbers are improving, such as urban air pollution, and the Ministry’s advances in openly reporting and assessing these issues. While CO2 emissions are under the purview of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the MEP does discuss the issue of climate change itself: It provides a graph of temperature rise in China since 1961, showing a clear increase over that time of at least 0.5 degrees C, as well as a discussion of climate-related natural disasters and extreme climate events.

These State of the Environment reports for over the past decade are all on MEP’s websites. The most recent are easily found on the homepage (earlier years seem easier to access through a search engine rather than the website’s own indexing system). In the late 1990s, the reports asserted that the environmental situation was “basically good.” Later reports became somewhat more cautious, describing the situation as “basically unchanged.” It is only after the environmental agency achieved Ministerial status in 2007 and issued its first report as a full Ministry in 2008 that we see the report start to become more critical. In its first report as a Ministry, the environment was described as “not inspiring.” In more recent years the situation has been described as “severe,” and this year the Vice Minister used the term “grave.”

The Ministry has now used the same format for several years, making comparisons easier. The most striking changes are in the reporting of water pollution and the growing concern about eutrophication in China’s lakes, rivers and coastal areas. While the report does not suggest major changes in the health of China’s rivers in the past year, it reports that many of its major lakes, reservoirs and coastal areas are actually getting worse. The major concern is nutrient pollution, whether from agriculture and animal husbandry, urban wastewater or some industrial processes. Addressing this issue is a new target in the 12th Five Year Plan. (The complete Chinese text is here). The 11th Five Year Plan targeted chemical oxygen demand (or COD), and indeed the ministry reports that COD was reduced by more than the 10% target. But the ministry has been increasingly frank about the need to control additional pollutants to impact overall water quality.

Vice Minister Li described significantly more progress in urban areas than in rural areas or with biodiversity protection. In his speech Li said that biodiversity decline had “not been under effective control with continuous loss and drain of genetic resources.” He also expressed concern both about pollution from livestock and poultry farms and from mining.

The issue of the rural environment has become even more prominent in recent weeks, because of the environmentally-connected protests in Inner Mongolia. As with most protests in China there are undoubtedly many causes, but the immediate triggers were two separate violent conflicts over coal mining. Vice Minister Li indicated that his ministry would also look into ensuring environmental compliance in Inner Mongolia.

image taken from “State of the Environment Report 2010 (中国环境状况公报)”, Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection