Aggressive legislation raises hopes that Beijing is finally getting serious about the environment.
China's explosive growth has wreaked havoc on its environment, and for decades, the government paid it little more than lip service. But the ruling Communist Party has changed its tune in recent months, acknowledging the extent of its pollution crisis, and taking aggressive action to curtail it.
Last week, the government passed sweeping amendments to its environmental protection laws — the first changes in 25 years — imposing tougher penalties for polluters and making it easier for whistleblowers and advocates to report polluting companies. When it goes into effect next January, the law will establish "environmental protection as the country's basic policy."
The amendments passed this month mark the latest in a series of recent moves to curb pollution in China, where environmental concerns have become a hot political issue. Late last year, the government announced its first national plan to combat climate change, and it has already committed $280 billion to cleaning its air. In March, Premier Li Keqiang saidChina will "declare war" on pollution, describing the country's smog problems as "nature's red-light warning against inefficient and blind development."
Rapid industrialization and a burgeoning middle class have strained resources in China, with devastating effects on its air, land, and waterways. Coal-burning plants have fueled regular smog crises in some parts of the country, and widespread pollution has put extra pressure on limited water supplies. Earlier this month, the government announced that one-fifth of its farmland is contaminated by pollutants like cadmium and arsenic. And despite world-leading investments in renewable energy, China continues to rely heavily on fossil fuels to meet its energy needs: it remains the world'slargest emitter of carbon dioxide, and accounts for about one-third of the world's greenhouse gas emissions.
Experts are cautiously optimistic about the revised legislation, describing it as an encouraging sign that the country is getting serious about environmental stewardship. Although China has announced several initiatives to tackle pollution in the past, few have been implemented, and the government has long been reluctant to acknowledge the extent of the damage.
Its efforts have been especially hindered by weak central oversight from the federal Ministry of Environmental Protection, as well as vested industrial interests that are intrinsically linked with local governments, weakening incentives to implement change. The stiffer penalties announced last week could signal a transformation: executives of polluting companies can be detained for up to 15 days under the amended legislation, and local government leaders who cover up environmental abuses risk being demoted or fired.
"What's most exciting is that there are parts of it that are trying to give the Ministry teeth," says Jennifer Turner, director of the China Environment Forum at the Wilson Center. "That's been a vital weakness in China's environmental enforcement for a long, long time."
The Chinese public has become more aware of the country's environmental crisis, and have begun voicing their concerns through both social media and public demonstrations. In late March, about 1,000 people demonstrated outside government buildings in the southern city of Maoming to protest plans to build a new chemical plant. Similar demonstrations sprouted elsewhere in the country, and hundreds of protests occurred last year, underscoring an ongoing and important shift in thinking on environmental issues.
Written By: Amar Toor
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