Multinational Companies Are Breaking China's "Most Basic" Pollution Law

Top multinational and Chinese companies are not reporting what pollutants they are releasing into China's air and water, as a new law requires, according to a report by Greenpeace.

Among the eighteen companies cited were eight of the world's top 500 companies -- Shell, Samsung Electronics, Nestle, LG, Kraft, Motorola, Denso and Bridgestone -- and 10 major Chinese companies, including industry leaders such as PetroChina and Shenhua.China's pollution information disclosure law, which took effect in May 2008, requires companies to reveal details of pollution to the public within 30 days of being cited for breaking pollution laws, and come up with an emergency plan to rectify the problem.
Local governments are also obliged to provide information upon request by the public.

Pollution disclosure has been one of the most effective and low-cost policy tools to reduce industrial pollution in developed countries. In the United States, for instance, the Toxics Release Inventory has been credited with cutting pollution by 61% in 20 years.

Still, it should surprise few who watch China that the law isn't being obeyed. (A study last month also found that only 4 of 113 local governments responded to public requests.)

But when the law is being flouted by some of the biggest companies operating in China, blame tends to fall less heavily on local officials than on the companies themselves.

Foreign Companies Deny Culpability
At a time when many Chinese see the developed world's pressure on China as hypocritical -- rich countries are liable for most of the world's greenhouse gases (and to some extent, China's, too), goes the argument -- pollution violations by multinationals only add insult to injury.

"It is shocking that these industrial leaders did not manage to obey the most basic environmental regulation in China," Ma Tianjie, senior campaigner for Greenpeace China, told China Daily.

A spokesperson for Kraft Foods told the South China Morning Post that the company's green standards in China are as strict as those the company maintains elsewhere. The company tightened pollution emissions standards after a Kraft factory was blacklisted last year by authorities in the coastal city of Tianjin.

Representatives of Shell and Nestle also said pollution violations found in specific factories had been dealt with properly. A spokesperson for Motorola said that one of its factories had breached pollution standards last year, but months before the law was adopted.

Ma Jun, a water expert behind China's first water pollution map, which also cited a number of foreign firms, told the SCMP that companies were required to announce their violations anyway.

'I can't imagine how the regulation can be enforced if top companies do not take the lead,' he said.

Greenpeace also blamed weak enforcement of the law and ambiguities within the regulation itself.

An Incentive for Transparency?
In a country where weak enforcement and a lack of public participation threatens environmental monitoring, corporate transparency -- and the accountability to the public they promote -- can play a crucial role in reducing local pollution.

But as long as local officials look the other way, what incentive do companies have for publicizing their pollution levels or trying to win the favor of Chinese citizens where they operate?

Greenpeace's publicity drive points to one possible incentive: winning the favor of concerned consumers everywhere else.

See Greenpeace's summary and download the report in PDF.

Tags: China | Pollution

Best of TreeHugger