China's third plenum

Plenum push towards 'greener' economy faces challenges

Communist Party's plans to establish 'ecological red lines' requires a host of new laws but leaves the public on the sidelines

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 November, 2013, 5:53am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 November, 2013, 5:53am

The Communist Party has vowed to seek a more balanced model of development by shifting local governments' focus away from breakneck economic growth, according to the resolution from a key party meeting last week.

But some experts said the leadership faced daunting challenges in carrying out the pledges.

In a bid to contain local governments' aggressive pursuit of economic growth, the party said it would introduce a stricter assessment of local authorities' "green" performance, vowing to give more weight to resource efficiency and environmental protection.

Cadres may be subject to an audit of local natural resources, a move aimed at uncovering any severe environmental damage on their watch. They may also be held responsible for their stewardship of the ecosystem while in previous posts.

The plenum resolution listed "environmental protection" for the first time among the government's five top responsibilities, behind macroeconomic management, job creation, market supervision and social management, according to National School of Administration Professor Zhang Zhanbin.

The central government pledged to draw an "ecological red line" to limit exploitation of natural resources. And poorer counties in ecologically fragile areas will no longer be required to meet their growth targets.

Dr Xia Guang, director of the Policy Research Centre for Environment and Economy under the Ministry of Environmental Protection, wrote in the People's Daily that "red lines" would not only refer to geological areas that were off-limits to exploitation, but also better control the use of natural resources and emissions of pollutants, including greenhouse gases.

Ma Jun , the director of the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, said that although many of the ideas had been raised before, they showed leaders' intention to strike a balance between economic growth and environmental protection. But questions remained over how the agenda would be carried out, he said

"Implementation will be met with daunting challenges, as there are no tried and tested ways to evaluate officials," Ma said. "Some previous experiments on similar ideas have ended up in a failure."

He pointed to the short-lived "Green GDP" system, which sought to deduct environmental costs from gross domestic product growth. The programme was eventually ditched after local governments strongly objected.

Also, the document seemed to have left out mechanisms allowing public participation.

"Public supervision is equally important in ensuring the 'ecological red line' is not crossed; otherwise the promises would again turn out to be just empty words," Ma said.

Without public monitoring, local governments and powerful state-owned companies can abuse the environment, as has happened with dam projects on the Yangtze River, which led to the destruction of rare fish stocks, he said.

The party will also seek to give businesses more incentive to tackle environmental damage by expanding emissions trading programmes and resource taxes. In a change from the previous approach of "whoever pollutes should clean up", the leadership will now ask polluters to pay while allowing "a third party" to carry out treatment measures, according to the document.

Rolling out specific programmes that implement the ideas is expected to be a long process, as the country would have to enact necessary changes in environmental laws, which usually proves a battling ground of various conflicted interests, some experts said.