What if China were a green superpower? Actually, the central government has a strong desire to be just that. However, anarchy and corruption in local areas stand in the way.

- China is not able to control pollution because of the corruption at local government level, even though the central government has good intentions, says Maya Wang, researcher at Human Rights Watch, Asia Division in Hong Kong.

The central government in China has closed a number of large coal-fired power plants and developed new standards for such plants designed to cut harmful emissions such as CO2, lead and mercury. So the green intentions are good.

China is not able to control pollution because of the corruption at local government level, even though the central government has good intentions

But China is a very large country and the central government’s ideas have little impact without the support local incentives. Unfortunately, local governments have another agenda: to make money and jobs fast.

- In theory, the local governments shouldn’t reward polluting companies with contracts or approvals, because they know there is an environmental issue. But they look the other way, because they need the investments and jobs that these companies create, says Maya Wang.

Local governments cheat on the facts

A study conducted by the Chinese central government revealed that there are 30% more coal-fired power plants under construction than have been officially reported. In 2010, provincial energy statistics were underreported by 20%.

Things are changing, however. A far-reaching campaign against corruption launched by the Chinese government in 2012 is beginning to have a positive impact, according to Maya Wang:

- This is making the local governments more cautious, so we believe that it has a positive impact on the pollution in China.

A sharp CSR profile

Another crucial factor that can encourage the Chinese industrial sector to focus on responsible and green production is investors with a sharp CSR profile. They can pressure Chinese subcontractors with their environmental policies.

- In fact, the Chinese people are often receptive. They want to learn more and to see the good examples, says Ole Odgaard, senior advisor at Thinkchina.dk, a think-tank for Danish-Chinese relations under University of Copenhagen.

As an example, Ole Odgaard mentions the Nordjylland Power Station, a coal-fired combined heat and power plant in Vodskov, Denmark, which has exported modern technology to China:

- In this case, we actually succeeded in getting local governments and energy companies to purchase more modern and efficient power plants by showing them well-planned and green solutions.