Fighting the Good Fight
There are several trends in China's water pollution, which sometimes begins at the tributaries and spreads to the main rivers, or spreads from the surface to underground, from cities to the countryside, or from dry land to the ocean.
It's not that there's no solution to the water crisis. The greatest irony is that even with pollution control technologies and new environmental laws, there is still no control over water pollution. Lax enforcement and illegal cost-cutting – these are the true causes of today's situation. They reveal a lot about the true mode of economic development.
By the end of 2011, PM 2.5, or particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, had become a hot topic and caused the government to set up its own monitoring systems. How do you view the progress against air pollution? Officials say the air has improved markedly in recent years. Do you agree with this point of view?
This is a very important event. In this case the participation of the public has caused the government to overcome a very large obstacle in the disclosure of important environmental information. In the beginning, the government simply refused to include PM 2.5 in its data, but in the past year it's switched its policy.
PM2.5 is a very specialized word. We talked about it before and often took it to mean fine particulate matter. Because of this, the public managed to self-educate within the span of a few months. This shows that with strong communication tools, the public has the means to find information. The government also deserves recognition in this case because they are still willing to listen to public opinion. If public opinion is loud enough, the problem exists.
Right now we have the worst air pollution problem in Chinese history. In recent years the problem has become much more complex. In the past, the problem was mainly larger particulate matter, which simply looked terrible. But the impact on people's health was far smaller than the pollution we have now. At this point we know the smaller, finer particles pose the greatest risk to human health.
In the last 10 years, there have been a growing number of "not in my back yard," or "nimby," campaigns. Do you think this represents a trend in addressing environmental issues?
Environmental issues have a direct impact on the public, and public awareness has also generally increased. They now understand that environmental issues will impact them and will be more alert and stronger in their opposition. This has been the cause for many environmental events in recent years.
Protests have grown ever larger in recent years, which have not gone smoothly due to increasing friction with law enforcement agencies. When you have a large scale project that greatly impacts the surrounding public, the decision-making process is still almost totally controlled by the government and business enterprises. The public basically has no role to play in these developments and their complaints against environmental degradation largely go unnoticed.
Local governments who have faced "nimby" campaigns typically move to suppress them. Where do you think the government has gone wrong in reacting to this, and what can other parts of China learn from these movements?
For most of the "nimby" movement, the protesters simply demand the protection of the environment, which is consistent with the objectives of the government.
To mitigate this situation, we must first openly allow the public to participate. At the very least, environmental impact assessment reports need to be made public.
The second is to open up channels of the legal system, to liberalize environmental litigation and allow activists to speak in public. Right now, this channel is essentially shut off.
On the government side, the two major legal tools that can make good use of
environmental impact assessments are regulators that must enforce environmental
laws and regulations. In short, the solutions to environmental problems must be
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