Opinion / Editorials

Eco-watchdogs need to do their job to abate pollution

(China Daily) Updated: 2016-06-22 07:44

Eco-watchdogs need to do their job to abate pollution

Smoke rises from a chimneys of a steel mill on a hazy day in Fengnan district of Tangshan, Hebei province February 18, 2014.[Photo/Agencies]

Weeks after a central government inspection team completed an extensive survey of environmental protection in North China's Hebei province, the central authorities have reportedly decided to dispatch environmental ombudsmen to several other provinces for a new round of inspections.

Of course, this could be seen as the central government enhancing oversight of environmental policy implementation.

More importantly, however, it shows that direct central government intervention has become the last-resort treatment for the country's environmental ailments. Since local environmental watchdogs have not been working as required.

In official documents, in officials' public speeches, it sounds like there is a broad consensus on the necessity of eliminating excess capacities like heavy, chemical industries both to reduce pollution, and restructure and upgrade the economy.

But as the Hebei case shows, it is quite another story when it comes to implementation. Dirty and inefficient as they are, the small, wasteful, technologically backward steel mills and chemical plants may be essential contributors to local government revenues, or job providers.

An excited Hebei official once asked in an interview on TV: Is it fair for Hebei to give up its new-found path to wealth in exchange for some fresh air for Beijing? Hebei residents would not mind breathing in some polluted air, he argued, because those industries make them better-off. And that has been the typical defense for local protectionism in the provinces.

With local leaders boldly extending umbrellas over their pet cash cows, few local environmental protection agencies stay loyal to their duties. After all, with their own well-being contingent on local revenues, putting environmental protection above local financial interests is an act not only of betrayal of neighboring areas, but also of inflicting self-harm.

The latest scandal of enterprises tampering with online pollution monitoring data, too, has to do with watchdog inaction. The practice, which is believed to have become a "tacit rule", or standard practice, in polluting industries, would not have become so prevalent had local environmental protection agencies acted in earnest.

It is not a bad idea to substantially raise the cost of violations. But perhaps it is more important to divest the environmental watchdogs of the fetters of local interests.

Effective as they are, counting on central government inspection teams to discover and correct local environmental problems is costly and unsustainable.

The only way out is to make local watchdogs work.

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