Conflict of interest to blame for degradation of China’s air, water and soil

When watchdogs tasked with protecting the environment are tied to local governments, priorities are skewed and enforcement compromised

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 June, 2016, 11:37pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 June, 2016, 11:37pm

China is not short on goals to cut pollution. Authorities, mindful of dwindling natural resources and public health concerns, are setting ecological red lines on energy and water consumption and use of land. But no matter how many targets and laws are put in place, the key to attaining aims will always be implementation and enforcement. A court’s ruling this week that a county-level environmental watchdog failed to properly carry out its duties highlights the challenges.

Where in China can you find the worst air pollution? You might be surprised ...

In a landmark ruling, the court sided with prosecutors who had sued the environmental protection agency in Shandong (山東 ) province’s Qingyun county for inadequately punishing a polluter. Filed under a national pilot programme, it was the first public interest case against a government department. The agency was found to have committed “illegal acts” in its dealings with the Qingshun Chemical Technology Company, which two years ago produced dye for treating sewage without adequate safeguards. Minimal administrative penalties had been imposed and the firm had been given the go-ahead for trial operations.

Chinese environmental protection agency loses landmark case proving dereliction of duty

The case shines a light on a flaw in how environmental protection is carried out. Conflict of interest can too easily get in the way of legal enforcement. Environmental agencies are given guidance by the environment ministry, but are largely staffed and funded by local governments. Officials at the provincial and lower levels have tended to put economic growth before all else, their focus being on generating revenue and jobs.

That skewed attention is why there has been so much degradation of the air, water and soil. A recent inspection of environmental protection measures in Hebei (河北) province by a central government team has prompted authorities to widen the scheme. But while such oversight can identify shortcomings, it does not fix the problem. Nor does allowing agencies to be taken to court make them function more effectively. Instead, watchdogs have to be freed of local interests so that they can have the teeth to operate effectively.