By ANDREW JACOBS/NYT
BEIJING — China’s environment minister on Monday issued an unusually stark warning about the effects of unbridled development on the country’s air, water and soil, saying the nation’s current path could stifle long-term economic growth and feed social instability.
Ignoring such risks, Mr. Zhou said, would be perilous.
“In China’s thousands of years of civilization, the conflict between humankind and nature has never been as serious as it is today,” he wrote. “The depletion, deterioration and exhaustion of resources and the worsening ecological environment have become bottlenecks and grave impediments to the nation’s economic and social development.”
His comments, coupled with similar remarks by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao that were publicized in the state media on Monday, suggest that China may seek to embrace tighter environmental restrictions during legislative sessions that begin this week in Beijing. The meetings, held once a year, will include the introduction of the country’s latest five-year economic plan.
On Sunday, Mr. Wen lowered the target for average gross domestic product growth, to 7 percent from 7.5 percent, and suggested that China would reconfigure the emphasis that places economic growth above all else.
“We must not any longer sacrifice the environment for the sake of rapid growth and reckless roll-outs, as that would result in unsustainable growth featuring industrial overcapacity and intensive resource consumption,” said Mr. Wen in an Internet chat widely publicized by the state media.
The remarks come at a time of unrelenting environmental degradation that has accompanied double-digit economic growth. Last year, China registered 10.3 percent growth, higher than its official target.
Mr. Zhou’s vow to weigh factors like climate change when approving new factories would be significant given that such policies were largely the domain of China’s top economic planning agency, the National Development and Reform Commission, which had been reluctant to sacrifice economic growth for environmental protection.
With its increasing fixation on social stability, the Communist Party may have come to realize the benefits of balancing economic growth with the public’s demands for uncontaminated food and water. In recent weeks, there has been a cascade of damaging news about the environment, from dangerously high smog levels in the capital to a study that found 10 percent of domestically grown rice contaminated with heavy metals.
China has also become the leading emitter of greenhouse gasses, which scientists link to global warming, largely because of the country’s dependence on coal, which feeds 70 percent of its energy needs, and its growing thirst for oil. Although the government has an ambitious program to cut energy use for each unit of economic growth, it refuses to place any outright caps on emissions.
Official vows to rein in environmental abuse are frequently announced, but many laws and policies are ultimately circumvented or ignored at the local level, in large part because of a system that encourages officials to pursue economic growth over environmental sustainability.
Still, the governing Communist Party has demonstrated its ability to make significant changes. Last summer, Mr. Wen vowed to use an “iron hand” to improve his country’s energy efficiency. By the fall, more than 2,000 steel mills, cement plants and other energy-hogging factories had been closed.