China pollution 'threatens growth'

File image of a woman walking past a coal-fired power station in Beijing on 25 February 2011 China's rapid economic growth has left skies and waterways heavily polluted

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The man in charge of protecting China's environment has warned that pollution and the demand for resources threaten to choke economic growth.

Environment Minister Zhou Shengxian said conflict between development and nature had never been so serious.

He said if China meant to quadruple the size of its economy over 20 years without more damage, it would have to become more efficient in resource use.

Otherwise, he said, there would be a painful price to pay.

His comments came ahead of China's annual session of parliament, which opens on 5 March.

They also came a day after Premier Wen Jiabao said China was lowering its annual economic growth target from 7.5% to 7%, in part because of its impact on the environment.

'Bottlenecks'

Mr Zhou's comments came in an essay posted on the website on the Ministry of Environmental Protection.

Analysis

Zhou Shengxian wants to see environmental protection become a key plank of the new Five Year Plan (2011-2015) to be debated during the annual session of the National People's Congress.

Chinese ministers do not often publish their ideas like this. (It happened nearly two years ago when China's central bank governor published a series of essays on reserve currencies and reform to the international financial system.)

The environment minister's statement is an open call for a paradigm shift away from the model of high input, high resource consumption, and high pollution, to sustainable growth to ease the conflict between economic and social development, and the environmental damage it has caused in the past three decades.

Chinese scholars say China's energy intensity per unit of GDP is at least five times that of Japan. Social stability is another factor as more people are enraged by worsening air, water and soil pollution.

It remains to be seen if his call will be translated into real action as China's economic engine roars ahead.

"In China's thousands of years of civilisation, the conflict between humanity and nature Zhou Shengxianhas never been as serious as it is today," he wrote.

"The depletion, deterioration and exhaustion of resources and the deterioration of the environment have become serious bottlenecks constraining economic and social development."

China, he said, would suffer unless issues of air and water pollution were prioritised.

He suggested that his ministry should take on a greater role in tackling greenhouse gas emissions and that new development projects be assessed for their impact on climate change.

In recent decades, development has been prioritised over the environment, meaning that China now has some of the most polluted skies and waterways in the world.

It relies heavily on coal and is the world's leading CO2 emitter. It overtook the US as the world's biggest car and van market in 2009.

In recent years there have been numerous examples of industrial spills or dumping that have damaged waterways and in some cases harmed residents.

The BBC's Martin Patience in Beijing says that the government has repeatedly promised to tackle pollution, but then failed to enforced these decisions.

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