Environment minister makes admission as study shows life expectancy 5.5 years lower in Northern China due to pollution
China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection has been described by its own minister as being among the world’s “four major embarrassing departments”.
The comments by Zhou Shengxian are the latest admission by a member of the Chinese government that the country’s environmental problems are severe and that there is no quick fix. President Xi Jinping has previously admitted that pollution has become a major concern of Chinese people and promised to tackle the problem.
“I’ve heard that there are four major embarrassing departments in the world and that China’s ministry of environmental protection is one of them,” Zhou was quoted by the Chinese state news agency Xinhua as saying. He did not say what the other three departments in which countries were.
However Zhou defended his ministry saying that it is hampered by overlapping functions in government. “Our environmental work involves many departments. Many of the functions are overlapping,” added Zhou and said that water, land and carbon are managed by different departments.
Despite political statements and increasing public outcry, last month Beijing’s 20 million residents were once again advised to stay indoors as air pollution levels reached hazardous levels more than 20 times higher than World Health Organisation recommendations.
A new study has said that life expectancy is 5.5 years lower in northern China than the south of the country because of the high levels of air pollution. The “embarrassing” ministry however claims that the study is “unconvincing” because it is based on limited samples. An official with the ministry, Liu Zhiquan, told state media that while the pollutants emitted in coal burning include heavy metals, small particles and sulfur dioxide which can affect health, it is not known whether it can shorten human life.
But the “embarrassing” ministry does admit that China’s environmental situation is “grim”. In June it released the 2012 Environmental Conditions Report which gives an update on the country’s environment. It found that around a third of China’s major rivers are “polluted” or “seriously polluted” and that only 27 out of 113 key cities reached air quality standards last year.
The ministry has come in for criticism because of the lack of available information on a number of environmental issues. Soil pollution is believed to be a major problem across the country and scientists have warned that it could be a bigger problem than air and water pollution. However, the ministry refused to release results of a major national study on the scale of the problem on the basis that the full report is a state secret.
It is not just the ministry that has proven to be unpopular, in his comments, Environment Minister Zhou didn’t mention his own performance which has come in for criticism. Zhou held the same position in the previous administration and his reappointment was an unpopular decision given the little progress made under his tenure to improve China’s “grim” environmental situation. During the National People’s Congress in March when the new leadership’s ministerial appointments were announced, Zhou received the lowest number of votes of approval.