China is now emitting almost twice as much carbon dioxide as the next-biggest polluter, America. At current rates, it will produce 500 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide between 1990 and 2050—as much as the whole world produced between the start of the Industrial Revolution and 1970. Pollutants in the air in Beijing have hit 40 times the level decreed safe by the World Health Organisation. Yet China did not have a ministry devoted to environmental protection until 2008, and the government has done its best to keep information about the levels of filth in the air and water under wraps. Even now, the state is keeping secret a nationwide survey of soil pollution.
The new rules that have just come into effect signal the beginning of a move towards openness. They require 15,000 enterprises, including some of the biggest state-owned ones, to make public in real time details of their air pollution, waste water and heavy-metals discharges…Things are opening up at a local level, too. In 2012 only a few cities, including Beijing, published statistics on air quality. Now 179 do. And more firms are volunteering information about pollution—especially those that need foreign investors.
The impetus behind this new transparency is not a sudden enthusiasm for liberalism. Rather, the government is worried that people are increasingly angry about pollution—a recent Pew survey of the concerns of Chinese citizens found that pollution was fourth, behind inflation, corruption and inequality, but was rising fast—and attempts to clean the country up by central-government fiat are foundering.
China’s environment: A small breath of fresh air, Economist, Feb. 8, 2013, at 14