08/08/2006, 00.00
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Sulphur dioxide, acid rain: pollution on the rise in Chinese cities

High coal consumption is the major culprit of pollution that also affects other countries. Annual losses of more than 510 billion yuan and serious respiratory illnesses are two of the consequences. Local authorities resist implementing measures to monitor the environment.

Beijing (AsiaNews/SCMP) – China last week admitted to being the world's largest sulphur dioxide polluter, emitting nearly 26 million tons of the gas in 2005.

This means a 27% increase since 2000 and according to Li Xinmin, an official of the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), it coincided with a rise in coal consumption, which accounts for 70% of energy produced. Li said it "was difficult to change the situation in the short term" and the government was planning a 10% reduction in emissions from industrial plants by not earlier than 2010. An increase in the use of cars has also led to increased gas emissions.

The gas contributes to acid rain that also affects neighbouring countries like Hong Kong and Japan, and it could cause severe respiratory illnesses. Official sources said this pollution leads to "economic losses" amounting to around 510 billion yuan per year. Added to this are costs in terms of health: a study by the School of Public Health of the University of Fudan estimated that air pollution costs Shanghai alone more than eight billion yuan per year for medical expenses.

Xu Kezhu, professor of Environmental Law of China University for law and political sciences, said China's laws stipulated that polluting plants should install devices to cut back on emissions but this regulation was poorly applied because of protectionism from the local authorities and the large number of existing plants.

Xu said: "The problem is that the limits are not clearly laid down and there is no precise application of laws when pollution is caused." He continued: "Many factories still do not use anti-polluting devices or else they issue gas at night... Local governments do not monitor the situation carefully to identify and sanction polluters."

Chen Dongmei, director of the Climate Change and Energy programme of the World Wildlife Fund in China agreed that although the central government may want to rein in pollution, this "is sometimes not understood by the local authorities".

Beijing, meanwhile, denies pollution could affect other nations, especially the United States. Recently, some scholars accused China of causing 25% of the air pollution in cities like Los Angeles. Li said: "Those reports saying 25% of pollution in Los Angles comes from China are not objective and are irresponsible and the conclusion is also doubtful." Li said further, better studies were needed to assess both the polluting effect caused to other nations as well as the exact influence of meteorological phenomena.

Meanwhile, on 2 August, the Xinao Group, the Chinese leading gas distributor, obtained significant funding from the International Finance Corp, a private operator of the World Bank, to convert coal into dimethyl ether, a gas used for heating and cooking and thought to be non-polluting.

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