China passed the biggest changes to its environmental protection laws in 25 years, outlining plans to punish polluters more severely as leaders work to limit contaminated water, air and soil linked to economic growth.
The amended law “sets environmental protection as the country’s basic policy,” according to a copy posted on the government’s website. The rules hadn’t been changed since first enacted in 1989 as China began consuming more energy and the world’s most-populous country transformed into a global manufacturing hub.
Now the world’s biggest carbon emitter, China has moved to address the environmental damage that has been a byproduct of its breakneck economic growth and become a leading cause of social unrest. Government reports and recent comments from top officials about pollution have revealed the extent of the damage and raised new concern about its health effects.
The amendments give the public and government “powerful new tools” to cut pollution, Barbara Finamore, senior attorney and Asia director at the Natural Resources and Defense Council in New York, said in an interview. “The pollution is now impossible to ignore,” she said. “This is very big news.”
The changes provide “a strong incentive for polluters to come into compliance” as violators can be fined on a daily basis, Finamore said.
The amendments become effective from Jan. 1, according to the revised law, which was passed on yesterday by the Standing Committee of National People’s Congress, China’s top legislature. It allows for consecutive daily fines on polluters if they don’t get better and offers channels for whistle-blowers to make environment-related appeals. Non-government groups can also file lawsuits for environmental damage under certain conditions, it says.
The prominence given to open information and public participation is the biggest improvement in the revision, according to Alex Wang, assistant law professor at the University of California Los Angeles School of Law. Wang cautioned that it’s too soon to hail the amended law as anything beyond a signal of intent and aspiration, he said.
“If citizens truly ’supervise’ polluters as the law encourages, China will begin to make progress in turning its environmental crisis around,” Wang said in an e-mail. “But the proof is of course in the pudding. Given China’s history of weak environmental enforcement, the burden is on regulators to show that they now mean business.”
While China is currently the top global investor in clean energy, it will still be reliant on coal for most of its electricity in 2030 -- by when its power needs will have more than doubled, according to a report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
One major reason for the worsening environment has been the political weakness of the Ministry of Environmental protection, Dai Qing, a Beijing-based environmental campaigner, said in a telephone interview.
“If Premier Li Keqiang was head of a environment ministry small group or President Xi Jinping himself then I would have some hope,” she said.
New measures such as heavier fines, naming and shaming of companies and the demotion, dismissal or criminal prosecution of local government officials who don’t enforce regulation or manipulate data are expected to be more effective, the official Xinhua News Agency said yesterday.
Previously, polluters could often pay less in fines than it cost to install and operate pollution controls, lawmakers said during discussions on the legislation, according to Xinhua.
Company officials can be detained for as much as 15 days if they haven’t done an environmental impact assessment, ignore orders to stop construction, or continue to pollute after being asked to stop, the revised law says.
The legislation was passed after the Ministry of Land and Resources said almost 60 percent of the groundwater at 4,778 sites monitored across China was of poor or extremely poor quality with excessive amount of pollutants. A nine-year government survey found unacceptable levels of mercury, arsenic and other pollutants in 16 percent of the land tested, the ministry said.
“We’re seeing encouraging signs of progress in Chinese environmental policies in response to growing concerns around air pollution problems, including major reforms in several provinces to stop the growth of coal consumption,” said Gabe Wisniewski, Greenpeace USA’s climate campaign director.
“It’s good news for just about everyone except U.S. coal mining companies that were counting on the Chinese market to support increased coal exports in the face of declining U.S. demand,” Wisniewski said in an e-mail.
Beijing’s air quality in 2013 failed to meet government standards on 52 percent of the days due to smog and pollution, the Ministry of Environmental Protection said last month.
— With assistance by Feifei Shen, Ehren Goossens, and Henry Sanderson