The swift demise of China's green GDP figures highlights a growing policy conflict between advocates of environmental protection and officials long used to pursuing economic growth at all costs.
Green tightening is the latest buzz phrase in China. Hardly a day goes by without the administration tweaking taxes or promulgating orders to crack down on industries that guzzle energy or belch pollution.
But official enthusiasm has its bounds. Last month, statistics chief Xie Fuzhan said China was indefinitely halting, after just one year, publication of its estimates of the damage that China's double-digit GDP growth is doing to the environment.
There is no global standard for green GDP statistics, Xie said in explaining the decision at a news conference.
Analysts say he has a point. But they add political infighting is as much to blame as statistical uncertainties -- after all, China is able to calculate how well it is doing in reducing the amount of energy that goes into each unit of GDP.
I believe it is mainly due to administrative problems rather than technical issues, said Shi Xiaomin, general-secretary of China Society of Economic Reform, a Beijing-based think tank.
The outcome of the debate is important for the course of a country that will soon overtake the United States as the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases and where hundreds of millions of people have no access to clear drinking water.
A year ago, the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) and the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) jointly released China's first green GDP report, estimating the cost of pollution in 2004 at 3.05 percent of gross domestic product.
The report received wide coverage in domestic media.
But just a month later Pan Yue, SEPA's outspoken deputy chief, lost a key ally when then statistics chief Qiu Xiaohua was sacked for involvement in a big Shanghai pension fund scandal.
Pan from the environment agency has always been enthusiastic about green GDP, but there has been a change in the statistics bureau, said a researcher who is close to the matter.
He said the two agencies also disagreed over who would pay for compiling the green GDP data.
Wang Jinnan with the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning, who was technical head of the project, acknowledged that the silence that has fallen over green GDP was partly due to coordination problems between the two bodies.
Another headwind is that officials are still largely judged by their ability to deliver high economic growth, despite official pledges to take their environmental record into account.
Wang Dongjing, an official at the ruling Communists' Central Party School, said some local governments in western China would be only too happy if polluting industries relocated there from the seaboard.
As long as GDP is still a measure to appraise officials, local governments won't stop their impulse to speed up growth, Wang was quoted on Friday as saying by the Shanghai Securities News.
Parallel to the inaugural attempt to calculate a nationwide green GDP, 10 provinces took part in a pilot program to come up with their own figures under state guidance.
But officials said that project had died, even if some provinces have chosen to press on by themselves.
There are no new instructions from state agencies since the end of the pilot project last year, and we have no plans for provincial green GDP statistics, said Gao Bozhou, a statistics official in the central province of Anhui.
Gao, who oversaw Anhui's participation in the experiment, said it was hard for a province to assess green GDP in isolation.
Anhui, for example, suffers from pollution carried downstream on the Huai River from adjoining Henan province. But Henan is very reluctant to build Anhui's losses into its own green GDP.
Being an island, Hainan faces no such difficulties. China's southernmost province is trying to calculate local green GDP and hopes to issue the results by late this year or early 2008.
Hainan has little pollution, so the green GDP result will be good, said Wang Yuan, a Hainan statistics official.
The rich eastern province of Zhejiang is also doing its sums -- warily. Li Rongrong, a local number cruncher, said even the phrase green GDP is a bit controversial. Instead, Zhejiang is calculating the price of high GDP growth, Li said.
And then there's the question of calibrating the findings.
If we relax the standards, the results will give a wrong impression to decision makers that sustainable development has already been achieved; but if we use strict standards, officials won't be happy to see a sudden drop in the economic growth rate on their watch, Li said.
Gao Minxue, a professor at China Renmin University in Beijing, said it would take China a long time to build up a real green GDP reporting system.
At present, many local governments still have no clear idea what green GDP is, said Gao, who helped with the first, and for now solitary, nationwide set of calculations.