Far From Beijing’s Reach, Officials Bend Energy Rules

Copyright The New York Times
Choking on Growth – Part V
Published: November 24, 2007
QINGTONGXIA, China — When the central government in Beijing announced an ambitious nationwide campaign to reduce energy consumption two years ago, officials in this western regional capital got right to work: not to comply, but to engineer creative schemes to evade the requirements.
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Choking on Growth
This is the fifth in a series of articles and multimedia examining the human toll, global impact and political challenge of China’s epic pollution crisis.
The energy campaign required local officials to raise electricity prices as a way of discouraging the growth of large energy-consuming industries and forcing the least efficient of these users out of business. Instead, fearing the impact on the local economy, the regional government brokered a special deal for the Qingtongxia Aluminum Group, which accounts for 20 percent of this region’s industrial consumption and roughly 10 percent of its gross domestic product.
Local officials arranged for the company to be removed from the national electrical grid and supplied directly by the local company, exempting it from expensive fees, according to an electricity company official who asked not to be named, an official of the aluminum company and the official Web site of the nearby city of Shizuishan. As a result, Qingtongxia continued to get its power at the lowest price available.
It was a cat-and-mouse game grimly familiar to Chinese officials, who have a long tradition of spearheading ambitious nationwide campaigns that are all too often thwarted at the local level, partly because local priorities clash with national ones.
Concerned about China’s roaring economic engine consuming too much energy, national officials aimed to cut energy use by 20 percent per dollar of output within five years. China’s energy consumption has more than quadrupled since 1980.
The environmental toll is staggering. The country is already the world’s largest user of coal, the dirtiest type of energy. China’s coal consumption alone is projected to double in the next 20 years, according to the International Energy Agency.
Beijing has so fixated on the 20 percent goal that it has become the centerpiece of its overall strategy to reduce pollution in addition to consumption, as well as its main talking point in diplomatic negotiations to curb the output of gases that cause global warming. The target has elicited support among environmentalists in China and abroad. They regard it as ambitious given the explosion of heavy industry in China, which consumes vast amounts of electricity and, as it expands, makes the overall economy less energy efficient.
Drive to Conserve Sputters
Even so, the drive has mostly sputtered. According to official estimates, which in China are often overly generous, the country saved only 1.23 percent of energy per unit of output last year. In the first half of 2007, the authorities claim to have achieved 2.4 percent, double the previous year’s rate. Energy experts say they believe that the savings will increase over time, but to meet the goal of a 20 percent reduction by 2010, the country will have to reduce energy per unit of output by 4 percent a year on average, so the chances of achieving it look increasingly slim.
Officials in Beijing, faced with the likelihood that they will fall short of their target, have issued uncharacteristically scathing assessments of the performance of some local leaders, and they have vowed to use more of their powers to bring wayward officials into line. In May, China’s premier, Wen Jiabao, complained bitterly. “Understanding is not adequate, responsibilities are unclear, measures are not complementary, policies are incomplete, investment doesn’t arrive, and coordination is ineffective,” he said of efforts to cut energy consumption. “If these problems are not turned around, it will be difficult to achieve any obvious progress.”
More recently, Zhang Lijun, a deputy director of the State Environmental Protection Administration, warned that China was likely to miss its targets for emissions controls for the current five-year plan, which ends in 2010. “We haven’t spotted any substantial indicators of a slowdown in the expansion of energy-intensive sectors,” Mr. Zhang said.
The struggle to meet the target highlights the challenge of making China greener at a time when China’s top leaders have continued to emphasize breakneck growth, even as they worry about its costs. Officials at all levels arguably still face greater risks to their careers if they allow economic performance, job creation or tax revenue to lag than if they fail to curb pollution. Slower growth also means fewer opportunities for friends and relatives of people in power to cash in on the country’s boom.
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