While China's economic growth broke records last year, the country missed its energy saving and environmental protection goals for 2006. But environmental organizations think a change for the better is possible as the government and the public become increasingly aware of China's severe environmental problems. Claudia Blume reports from VOA's Asia News Center in Hong Kong.

China's target for 2006 was to cut energy consumption by four percent and emissions of major pollutants by two percent. But state media reported on Wednesday that only the capital Beijing and five other regions managed to reach those goals. Throughout the country, energy consumption even went up by almost one percent in the first half of last year.

2006 was the first year in a five-year plan that set ambitious green goals for China. By 2010, Beijing wants to reduce energy consumption by 20 percent and cut key pollutants by 10 percent.

Environmental groups say they are not surprised that China failed to reach its targets in the first year. Edwin Lau works for the organization Friends of the Earth in Hong Kong.

"The economic growth in China is still on the top of the country's agenda and that drives a lot of new development, new infrastructure, new companies emerge, and car growth - all this will somehow offset what measures they have put in to be more energy efficient or reduce the total amount of energy used by the country," said Lau.

China's focus on rapid economic growth has brought about enormous environmental costs. The air in most of China's major cities is severely polluted, contributing to severe health problems. Millions of Chinese lack access to safe drinking water. The public is becoming increasingly aware and angry about the deteriorating environment.

The government has repeatedly pledged to address environmental issues. Often, however, provincial officials, worried about maintaining economic growth, or corrupted by bribes, fail to enforce anti-pollution regulations.

Ailun Yang is with the environmental organization Greenpeace in Beijing. She says the government puts increasing pressure on provincial leaders to protect the environment.

"We do see that right now targets for energy efficiency and also for environmental protection are seen as important political performance criteria as well," she said. "This old model of 'pollute first and then pay back', this doesn't work. It's not like before - if you can show that a good record of economic development you can get away with it. Right now, you also have to show your record in environmental protection."

Yang says it will take a while before China will be able to strike a balance between economic development and environmental protection.

But both Yang and Friend of the Earth's Lau think the government is heading into the right direction and that change for the better is possible.