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China’s 12th Five-Year Plan Lays Out Ambitious Blueprint, But Data Challenges Remain

This post originally appeared on the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy blog.

In March, China released its 12th Five-Year Plan – a blueprint outlining the key economic and development targets for the country over the next few years.  Unlike previous Plans, climate change and energy are featured prominently, and a strong emphasis is placed on a slower, more sustainable growth trajectory.[1]  Not only is the 12th Five-Year Plan the first to mention climate change, but it adopts as part of national, binding law the climate pledges China first made at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCCC) Copenhagen climate summit in December 2009.  Binding targets for a range of other environment and energy issues are also included in the Plan, including important air and water quality pollutants that were previously absent.

Part of the country’s ability to achieve these targets will be in its capacity to measure and track progress toward its goals.  The Chinese government has pledged implementation of “well-equipped and statistical and monitoring systems” and “index evaluation systems”[2] in the 12th Five Year Plan, indicating an increasing awareness of the importance of data, information and robust infrastructure to ensure targets are met.  However, while there are signs of China’s move toward a more “data-driven” approach to decision-making in the formulation of the latest Plan, political sensitivities around pollution information still persist, meaning China may still confront challenges when trying to improve environmental conditions.

The 12th Five-Year Plan comes at a time of growing recognition from the Chinese government regarding the importance of information for environmental decision-making. In 2010 the Chinese government completed its first national census of pollution, requiring more than $100 million U.S. dollars, 570,000 staff and nearly two years to complete.[3]  The survey mapped more than 6 million sources of residential, industrial, and notably agricultural pollution, which had been previously absent from measures of water contamination.  The survey found that previous measures of water pollution – specifically chemical oxygen demand – had neglected to include non-point agricultural sources of pollution, from fertilizer and pesticide effluent as well as landfill leakage.[4]Including these non-point sources of discharge meant that prior measures of water pollution had been missing over half of the baseline data for chemical oxygen demand – from 13.8 million tons in 2007 to 30.3 million.  At the time, Chinese officials noted that the targets would not be revised based on the new data, while still touting China’s success in meeting COD reduction targets in the 11th Five-Year Plan. However, the findings from the survey did lead to the adoption of a binding reduction target for a critical water pollutant – ammonia nitrogen – and continued reduction goals for Chemical Oxygen Demand (COD) in the 12th Five-Year Plan. The adoption of these new water pollution targets were largely due in part to the survey results, which allowed for the government to set new targets and refine previous ones based on this new information.

While this example speaks to the progress China is making in terms of measurement and performance tracking, political sensitivities surrounding other environmental data still prove to be barriers to policy changes.  Earlier this year, the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) released draft proposals to amend its Air Pollution Index (API) [5] to an Air Quality Index (AQI) that more closely resembles the U.S. version [6]. While the proposed amendments include significant improvements – such as including ozone measurements, improved calculation methodologies, and standardizing color-coding schemes – PM 2.5 [7] is notably absent.Experts, such as Ma Jun, Director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), a Beijing-based NGO, and former Yale World Fellow, have suggested that leaving out PM 2.5 is due to political rather than technical concerns. “Government agencies feel the index may hurt the image of many cities that want to attract investment or that they may not be able to improve PM 2.5 pollution in a short time,” Ma told the Global TimesU.S. diplomatic cables have also revealed that lack of measurement of PM 2.5 and other dangerous air pollutants could be due to fear of political consequences.

So while we can see evidence that China is embracing improved data-based decision-making, the results are mixed because political vulnerability toward environmental pollution is still a serious concern amongst Chinese leadership who fear citizen unrest and social instability.  What China must realize are the benefits from knowing risks and exposures to environmental harms and pollutants, which is not possible without measurement.  Failing to incorporate critical pollutants in national environmental policies only pushes serious concerns under the rug, in a type of “act now, apologize later” mentality that in many cases have led to dire political ramifications for Chinese government officials when harmful pollution disasters surface [8].

Therefore, while the 12th Five-Year Plan makes important inroads in establishing more comprehensive environment and energy-related targets, equal progress needs to be made in terms of data transparency and a shift toward a government culture that doesn’t fear data and numbers.Only then can the Chinese leadership expect to formulate sound policies and robust systems to drive environmental results.


[2] Premier Wen’s Work Report, the NDRC Draft Plan for National Economic and Social Development, and the Ministry of Finance Budget Report can all be found online:http://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2011/03/05/china-npc-2011-reports-full-text/.

[3] Xinhua News Agency. 2010. China issues first national census of pollution sources. February 10.http://english.mep.gov.cn/News_service/media_news/201002/t20100210_185653.htm.

[4] Ansfield, J. and K. Bradsher. 2010. China Report Shows More Pollution in Waterways. The NY Times.http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/10/world/asia/10pollute.html.

[5] For information on how the API is calculated, see:http://www.livefrombeijing.com/2008/08/what-is-the-api-and-how-is-it-calculated/.

[6] Hsu, A. 2011. China amends air quality measures but misses key pollutant – PM 2.5.http://hsu.me/2011/03/china-amends-air-quality-measures-but-misses-key-pollutant-pm-2-5/.

[7] PM 2.5 refers to air particulates with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less; known to have serious health implications such as asthma, lung cancer, and cardiovascular disease, due to their ability to penetrate human lungs.

[8] Si, Meng. 2011. On Yunnan’s Chromium Trail. China Dialogue.http://www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/4493.

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