Shanghai Smog
The financial district of Pudong is seen on a hazy day in Shanghai. Reuters

In a surprisingly candid acknowledgment, China’s environment minister said, on Tuesday, that his ministry is of one of the world’s worst departments, but attributed its underperformance to its dependence on other several other government ministries.

Environment minister Zhou Shengxian’s remarks come at a time when the government is facing heavy criticism from the public, particularly from urban residents, over severe air pollution in several cities across the country, including in the capital, Beijing.

“I’ve heard that there are four major embarrassing departments in the world and that China’s ministry of environmental protection is one of them,” state news agency Xinhua’s official microblog quoted Zhou as saying, according to Reuters.

“Our environmental work involves many departments. Many of the functions are overlapping,” Zhou said, adding that water, land and carbon output were all managed by different ministries.

The minister’s comments coincided with a report, published on Tuesday by U.S.-based Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which said that severe air pollution in northern China, due to the government's promotion of coal burning, has reduced life spans in the region by more than five years compared to those in the country's south.

The government’s policy of providing free coal to citizens for heating purposes has also led to higher rates of heart and lung diseases among the nearly 500 million people residing north of the Huai river, the study found.

Only 27 out of 113 major cities in China met air quality standards last year, while 30 percent of the country’s rivers and 60 percent of tested groundwater was polluted, according to an annual report released by the Chinese government last month.

The nation was hit by a series of food safety scandals recently, including adulterated milk and baby products, as well as rat meat being passed off as lamb, pressuring the government to formulate tougher environment and food safety regulations. In March, the Huangpu river in Shanghai -- a major source of water supply for the mega city's residents -- was found clogged with thousands of pig carcasses.

“The current challenge facing the environmental (authorities) is how to properly deal with the environmental problems caused by economic development,” Zhou was quoted as saying by Xinhua.

Meanwhile, Chinese microbloggers were busy speculating about the other three most embarrassing departments, although Xinhua subsequently removed Zhou’s comments calling the ministry an embarrassment.

One microblog user suggested that China’s petitioning department, where citizens can submit their grievances, would quality as one of the worst, while the navy of China’s landlocked neighbor, Mongolia, and the foreign relations department of Taiwan, which China claims is part of the mainland, were among potential candidates, Daily Telegraph reported.

Zhou, who is on his second term as environment minister, was one among those who received the least number of votes from Chinese legislators in the race for cabinet positions earlier this year.