China offers a new environmental report, filled with state secrets

I can’t see my fingers.
I can’t see my fingers.
Image: AP Photo/Oded Balilty
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China published its annual report on the state of its environment yesterday, but don’t get too excited. As usual, the sensitive bits were labeled state secrets. Sadly, even the publicly available parts look bad.

What we found out

What we weren’t told

  • While the report included some information on air quality, it didn’t include the all-important measurements of small particulate matter—known as PM 2.5 and PM 10 for each particle’s width in microns. These minuscule particles can be inhaled, causing infections and sometimes cancer, and have been blamed for 1.2 million premature deaths in China in 2010 alone. Beijing was hit by a particularly intense cloud of pollution in January, when the US embassy recorded PM 2.5 measurements at 291. Levels above 25 are considered unsafe.
  • The government continues to keep the results of a five-year soil pollution study that cost 1 billion yuan ($163 million) under wraps (the results were classified as a state secret earlier this year). In April, a senior environmental official revealed that as much as 65% of fertilizer in China was used improperly. Some researchers say that up to 70% of Chinese soil is polluted.
  • No information was provided to explain how 44% of rice in the city of Guangzhou became polluted with dangerous levels of cadmium, an issue that has enraged people in China and sparked debate about the availability of information.

To an extent, this report simply confirmed what is already widely known—pollution is extremely widespread, largely due to weak regulation and corruption. With China’s economy slowing to around 7.7% growth in the first quarter of this year, the country’s policy of gunning for growth at all costs is getting, well, costlier. The World Bank estimated (pdf) in 2007 that pollution costs China about 5.8% of GDP each year (for instance, water pollution raises the cost of farming; poor air quality erodes building structures.)