Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Mixed messages on environment as National People's Congress convenes

Every March, China's National People's Congress (NPC), the nation's highest legislative body, convenes in Beijing to ratify the decisions of the nation's leadership. It is often an occasion to announce major shifts in policy, and so it's an important context in which to consider discourse on environmental protection. On the basis of two admittedly incomplete measures, the message is very mixed: while official media continues to highlight the severity of environmental issues, the portion of China's economic stimulus package devoted to environmental protection has decreased.

This week's China Daily includes a number of articles devoted to environmental issues, including one entitled "Innovation needed in alternative energy field," and another noting that "Sino-US talks turning to action" on climate change. The former article editorialized that "developing a low-carbon economic is a must as China continues to industrialize, not only for the nation's energy security, but also as part of an urgent international responsibility to address global climate change." This language, from two professors of public administration at Hunan University, is a noticeable shift from the standard government position that tackling climate change should be a developed-nation task. The latter article, depicting joint US-China efforts to improve energy efficiency, emphasized the co-benefits that could result from greater collaboration on energy matters. In general, the message seemed to be that environmental sustainability must remain a central goal of government policy, and that China should see action on environmental issues as part of its responsibilities as an emerging global power.

Sadly, this welcome news did not seem to be reflected where the rubber meets the road. According to China Environmental Law Blog and Caijing, the percentage of China's economic stimulus package to be devoted to environmental efforts is set to decrease. The amount of stimulus money devoted to "sustainable environment" will decline by over 120 billion RMB, with most of that amount being redirected to social welfare spending.

It's understandable to redirect stimulus money to ease the economic pain being faced by so many laid-off workers in China (and indeed, around the world). But this "readjustment" indicates just how difficult it will be for leaders around the world to implement green stimulus packages. As is so often the case, short-term economic considerations and long-term environmental sustainability stand at political odds.

Nonetheless, international coordination and consultation on implementing green stimulus could help governments keep their stimulus packages relatively green. Because initiatives to create green jobs and expand clean energy have never been attempted at such large scales, sharing best practices is a natural way for governments to enhance international financial and environmental cooperation (see previous post).

Here's to hoping Beijing, Washington, and governments around the world can their acts together and push green stimulus packages even as legislators push narrow self-interest.

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