China silences green GDP study, report says

BEIJING (Reuters) - China has stopped the public release of an official study putting a cost to the nation’s environmental damage, a government researcher told a Chinese newspaper, blaming official reluctance to confront pollution.

The Beijing News reported on Monday that the release of a “green GDP” report computing the cost of pollution and ecological degradation in 2005 had been “indefinitely postponed.”

Wang Jinnan, a senior expert at the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning who was technical head of the project, said publicizing the cost of bad air, water and soil had drawn fierce opposition from local officials eager to maintain growth.

“Taking out the costs of environmental damage would lead to a huge fall in the quality of economic growth in some areas,” Wang told the paper.

“At present many areas still place GDP above all else, and when such thinking dominates, the size of resistance to a green GDP can well be imagined.”

Wang said some provincial governments had lobbied the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) and the National Bureau of Statistics not to release the data.

The report was originally scheduled for release in March, the China Youth Daily reported.

A previous report for 2004 had calculated that environmental degradation that year cost 511.8 billion yuan ($67.7 billion) or 3.05 percent of gross domestic product -- a figure one SEPA official said at the time was “shocking.”

That earlier report was issued in September last year with official fanfare and wide domestic media attention.

The report for 2005 shows “losses from pollution and reduction in the GDP indicator even higher than the 2004 report,” the paper said, citing a weekend seminar on the study.

The report would also have computed economic losses from pollution for each province -- a sensitive step in a system where maintaining economic growth can be crucial to officials’ promotion prospects.

The unusual revelation of official infighting is the latest sign that China’s struggle to balance economic growth with environmental concerns has become a volatile political issue.

The Financial Times reported this month China had asked the World Bank not to publish estimates of the number of premature Chinese deaths each year from polluted air and water.

The bank study said about 460,000 Chinese died prematurely each year from water and air pollution and about 300,000 more died from indoor toxins.

Wang said that in the bureaucratic feud over environmental data, SEPA and the statistics agency had “major differences” over what the report should say and how it should be distributed.

The China Environment News, SEPA’s official newspaper, argued earlier this month that the “green GDP” idea was essential to breaking officials’ fixation on growth.

“We must use green GDP, this powerful restraining device, to further intervene and correct,” the paper said.

But the head of China’s statistics bureau, Xie Fuzhan, said on July 12 that the government had stopped using the term “green GDP” -- previously promoted to cover measures of growth that took into account environmental costs.

Xie said the term was not internationally accepted, but China would continue issuing statistics on energy efficiency, land use and emissions.

Some Chinese economists have also said that methods and data available for calculating economic losses from environmental exploitation were still too crude for open use.

Without the support of the statistics agency it would be impossible to continue research seeking to calculate the costs of environmental harm, Wang said.