China's beefed up environmental law welcome, but still needs bite

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 April, 2014, 5:18am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 April, 2014, 5:18am

A law held in contempt and observed in the breach can seem worse than no law at all. Lax enforcement of environmental laws and weak penalties for breaking them are an example. Environmental experts say law-enforcement bodies are likely to ignore violations if polluters have the right connections. When they do prosecute, fines are capped at a level that is an acceptable cost against gains to be made.

Those days are numbered, thanks to amendments to an environmental protection law lifting caps on penalties in a sweeping revision passed this week. The amendments, effective on January 1, are a legal landmark in Beijing's declared war on pollution and follow a pledge to abandon a growth-at-all-costs economic model that has spoiled much of China's water, air and soil. They give the Ministry for Environmental Protection the authority to take stronger punitive action, such as shutting down persistent or serious polluters and confiscating their assets. They are also a landmark in transparency by ensuring that information on environmental monitoring and impact assessments are made public. Indeed this is hailed as the biggest breakthrough by some activists, who say it establishes basic environmental rights.

To rein in the tide of pollution, the new rules also introduce an ecological "red line" that will declare certain regions off limits to polluting industries and formalise a system for assessing local officials on their environmental record.

That said, the key still lies in effective enforcement, amid fears that it will still be patchy, and in respect for the environment ministry's new powers, which need unequivocal backing from the highest level.

Efforts have been made to improve air quality and residents can heed the health warnings implicit in thick smog. But twice in the last week these columns have commented on examples of invisible threats - the carcinogenic pollution of tap water in the northwestern city of Lanzhou attributed to poor cleaning and maintenance following an oil leak, and an official study that indicates toxic, heavy-metal contamination of 16.1 per cent of China's soil and 19.1 per cent of arable land.

The final draft of the new law loosened a ban on most environmental non-government organisations filing lawsuits against polluters. This is welcome, but China still needs to mobilise more human and other resources through NGOs to make the new law effective.