This post originally appeared in Caixin.
Skeptics rolled their eyes after China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection announced in July that every province, municipality, and autonomous region, as well as eight state-owned conglomerates, had met all government-set targets for cutting air and water pollution in 2014.
Fueling the skepticism were long-held doubts about how data is collected and pollution-fighting progress assessed in China—doubts that some industry and government officials say are not only valid but ought to spur change. The ministry announcement reflected a compilation of upbeat reports filed by dozens of regional governments and state companies, including the country’s best-known petrochemical polluters PetroChina and Sinopec.
All goals were reached for cutting factory and power-plant emissions of four major pollutants in 2014, which was the fourth year of a five-year pollution-fighting program that began in 2011, the ministry said. These accomplishments suggest that the nation as a whole has reduced airborne sulfur dioxide emissions by 12.9 percent from the 2010 level by the end of 2014. Ammoniacal nitrogen and nitrogen oxide levels also met government mandates by falling 9.8 percent and 8.6 percent each. And chemical oxygen demand, a measure of organic compounds in water, has been cut 10.1 percent.
Meanwhile, skeptics have been urging a closer look at the wide gap between what the public sees and what the data says. Indeed, public perception has led to persistent questions about the government’s methods for measuring pollution levels and assessing the progress of emissions-control initiatives.
Among those posing questions is Wang Zhixuan, secretary-general of the China Electricity Council, a government-backed power-industry association. Wang said the government’s assessment method overemphasizes the role of the electric power industry, for example, while underemphasizing the effects that many small polluters have on the environment. What’s needed in China is a better way to assess pollution-fighting progress based on relevant statistics, Wang said. “When evaluating a person’s weight-loss achievements, you don’t make a judgment based on how much food was not eaten, but on how much weight the person lost.”
Environmental regulators have apparently heard Wang and the skeptics and have responded by adjusting their statistical methodology. People close to the environmental industry told Caixin that elements of the government’s pending emissions reduction plan for 2016 to 2020—the next five-year plan period—reflect an official interest in relevant changes. For example, the sources said, new rules for emissions volume management will likely be more sophisticated than those in place under the current system.
In addition, the sources said, the next five-year plan is expected to expand the number of pollutants for which emissions-cutting targets will be set. Nevertheless, the government will likely continue to face questions about the reliability of environment-related statistics—data at the heart of emissions reduction targeting.
One reason is that China’s environment is so polluted that improvements may be hard to perceive, Zhai Qing, a deputy environmental minister, said while addressing the media in February. Only after emissions are cut some “30 percent to 50 percent” will the public be able to notice “significant changes in environmental quality,” said Zhai.
The emissions-level assessment system, in place since 2006, focuses on monitoring total volumes of selected pollutants discharged into the air and water. Data collected through the system is used by the central government for job performance evaluations of local officials and state-owned enterprise executives.
Many environmental experts have called on the country to enforce emissions standards with more vigor. Stricter enforcement, they argue, would be more effective than setting goals for and tracking emissions volumes.
Wang said the government’s emphasis on assessments has pushed enforcement of industrial standards into the shadows. Such standards are designed to link environmental quality goals to how cleaner air and water impacts an economy and a company’s or a region’s technical capabilities. The net effect is better pollution control.
“If every company meets the standards but the quality of the environment is still substandard, then emission volume controls should be imposed,” said Wang. “This would be more reasonable.”
This political influence of this data is “great” and “can impact the achievements and political careers in local governments,” said Zhang Lijun, a former deputy environmental minister, before he was detained in July as part of a graft probe. Of course, said Wang, at times emissions assessment data has pointed to problems that force regional government officials and company executives to clean up their act.
But the former ministry official who requested anonymity noted that companies need not lift a finger before the final two years of a five-year plan. Even if all emissions cuts are made toward the end of an assessment period, a company can pass inspection. Indeed, the ex-official said, that’s exactly how many companies approach environmental rules. “It’s become a regular pattern,” he said. “The data is totally manipulated.” Local government and state company officials never disagree with the emission reduction quotas set by ministry, in part because final assessments can be delayed until the end of the five-year period. Moreover, oversight of the polluters is limited to occasional spot checks on site and reviews of smokestack or effluent records.
Huang Xiaozeng, a deputy director in the ministry’s emission control division, said current reduction targets are too low to trigger any perceptible changes in the quality of the environment. Moreover, these targets, he said, take into consideration what is feasible in each area of the country.
“Current emission reduction targets are based neither on industrial emission standards nor environmental capacity,” said a former Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau official. “They are simply set according to previous emissions figures.”
In 2007, the ministry adjusted the statistical basis for its chemical oxygen demand reduction targets after pollution statistics that year were found to be wildly out of line with statistics gleaned from older records.
But the adjustment may have actually made accurate data-gathering more difficult, said Wang Jinnan, deputy head of the ministry’s Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning. Data adjustments, particularly if done frequently, can complicate the task of tracking changes in emission discharge levels, he said.
Without accurate base data, “How can we make sure of the total reduction in emissions?” asked Yang Zhaofei, a former chief engineer at the environmental ministry. Besides, he said, political goals have been the main factors motivating officials and company executives to work to meet emissions quotas.
Meanwhile, inconsistent data might be expedient for anyone or any company that would rather not reveal what’s really going on. After all, said one data analyst who asked not to be named, the country has no reliable nationwide database for environmental statistics.
Base numbers “for emissions assessments came from historical statistics,” the analyst said. “But the figures did not come from a general survey. They were calculated on the basis of sampling performed by companies.” And this sampling was also unreliable.
Environmental regulators “have debated environmental protection achievements for more than 30 years,” noted a former ministry official who asked that his name not be used. “The fundamental reason [for the lack of results] is the low quality of China’s environmental data.”
The methods used for assessing emissions have also drawn fire over reliability issues.
Although power plants have had smokestack emissions monitors since the 1990s, data from them has played only a minor role in assessments, “because monitoring systems are very flexible and easily modified,” said an emissions monitoring employee at a state-run company who asked not to be named. As a result, emissions levels are based on levels of coal consumption—a method that opens a window to fraud.
Often a plant’s emissions data “totals will be determined by the last person to conduct an assessment and negotiated” with company and environmental officials, the employee said.
In addition, some experts say targets for the current five-year period were set too low. Wang said 2011-2015 targets let the power industry discharge 8 million tons of sulfur dioxide and 7.5 million tons of nitrogen oxides per year. But that’s already far above the industry’s own annual standards of 3.67 million and 1.82 million tons, respectively.
The assessment system is also limited to a few major industries. For instance, between 2005 and 2010, the power industry’s plants were responsible for 60 percent of the quota for national sulfur dioxide emissions. But other industries, such as agriculture, were not included in the quotas.
What’s needed now, Wang said, are changes that help improve environmental oversight as well as the environment. “But the key question,” he said, “is how to improve and reform.”