Chasing data in China’s provinces

The first independent review of provincial-level environmental data highlights a plethora of challenges to transparency in China, writes Angel Hsu, introducing the second of two new studies.

China’s environmental data has created many international headlines in recent months, particularly its controversial air-quality measurements. While Deng Xiaoping urged the Chinese citizenry to “seek truth from facts”, China is still a long way from providing the environmental data and information that allows for just that.

My colleagues and I recently released a study that provides a detailed analysis of provincial-level environmental data in China. We introduced a model framework for environmental performance indicators to assist the Chinese government in tracking progress toward policy goals, as well as recommendations for how the Chinese government can apply more aggressive performance metrics to environmental decision-making. 

In total, we looked at 32 indicators in 12 environmental policy categories (among them air pollution, water quality, climate change, biodiversity, agriculture and forestry). The data we reviewed and used to construct these indicators were all derived from official Chinese statistics.

We concluded that the lack of clear policy targets for many environmental metrics in China, as well as concerns over data sources and transparency, hamper the government’s ability to effectively address pressing environmental issues at the provincial level. While the report elaborates these challenges in detail, a few of the main findings are summarised below.

First, the existence of baseline environmental data is highly uneven. To develop performance indicators that evaluate the efficacy of environmental policies, baseline data are necessary to benchmark performance. Less than half the indicators evaluated had this. Baseline data were most prevalent for economic sustainability indicators (68%) and least prevalent for ecosystem vitality indicators (20%), while environmental health indicators were in the middle (42%). This pattern reflects the priorities of Chinese environmental policymaking in the past decade, which has emphasised pollution control and resource efficiency in the industrial sector. 

Second, difficulties in accessing raw data hinder data quality evaluation. Our report provides pilot indicators based on official statistics; however, we did not have the ability to independently evaluate those statistics. We found that official statistics for most indicators lack detailed information on data collection methods and monitoring systems, and in no instance were we able to obtain raw data from monitoring stations. Nor were we able to obtain data from third parties that might have been used to corroborate official statistics.

For all these reasons, it proved difficult to assess the validity and reliability of the official statistics. These difficulties gave us concerns about how much the official statistics reflect the reality of on-the-ground conditions.

Third, ongoing measurement systems are also highly uneven. Consistent measures, produced on a regular basis, following established methodologies, in a transparent and verifiable manner, are critical for environmental performance monitoring. In China, the measurement systems related to industrial efficiency are exemplary models. In this area, the published data meet the foundational requirements and, as a result, permit operational use of performance indicators in the five-year plans.

The other measures generally fall short. For example, methodologies for ecosystem measures tend to change over time, making comparison problematic, and the metrics used to measure air and water quality are transformed in ways that make tracking performance difficult.

And fourth, policy targets for the vast majority of candidate indicators are not easily identified. Overall, we were able to establish a basis for constructing a policy target for 21 of the 33 indicators we included in our framework — eight in the environmental health objective, seven in the ecosystem vitality objective and six in the economic sustainability objective. We considered 50 additional indicators but did not include them because of the lack of clear policy targets by which to gauge performance. However, the lack of properly specified policy targets is not unique to China. Similar challenges around goal-setting exist in many countries, especially in the developing world.

A major theme underpinning all of these conclusions is the need for greater data and information transparency. Even though laws on the disclosure of environmental information came into effect on May 1, 2008, China still has a long way to go in terms of providing environmental data transparently.

Researchers at Chinese NGO the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs and the US-based Natural Resources Defense Council found that most big cities in China failed to publish adequate pollution information in 2011 in the third edition of the Pollution Information Transparency Index (PITI), released last month. Only 19 out of 113 cities received passing scores for information transparency. The authors concluded that environmental information disclosure is an “innovative system” in China that does not, so far, go beyond the initial stages.

It is our belief that the value of both the PITI and our report, “Towards an Environmental Performance Index in China”, lies in being able to provide transparency to environmental data and results in China. Transparency and access to information are fundamental tenets of sound environmental policymaking. Greater transparency can stimulate research and policy for developing innovations that can only help China navigate the difficult path of sustainable development.

Angel Hsu is a doctoral student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and project director for the 2012
Environmental Performance Index.

This article is published as part of our Green Growth project, a collaboration between chinadialogue and The Energy Foundation.

Homepage image by Riskind