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China enters a new era for conservation and pollution control, but can it implement all the sweeping changes?

Poon Kit says the shift in the handling of emissions reductions to a new ministry – one of two new environmental agencies with expanded powers – suggests China is now implementing its environment plans to meet its local and global commitments

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 March, 2018, 11:57am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 March, 2018, 12:07pm

The new round of institutional reform, unveiled at the plenary session of the 13th National People’s Congress in Beijing last week, is truly a milestone in the history of China’s environmental protection and conservation. A new ministry for conservation and a restructured environmental watchdog will be established against the backdrop of streamlining 15 constituent ministries and departments of the State Council. 

The reform package is the eighth round of institutional revamping since 1982. It promises drastic consolidation and redistribution of both power and resources among ministries and departments so the Chinese government can meet the challenges of the day. The newly established Ministry of Natural Resources and Ministry of Ecological Environment, for example, will have enhanced powers to shoulder new responsibilities.

The objectives of the reshuffling are efficiency and efficacy. Throughout the years, a variety of ministries and departments have been given responsibilities that seemingly fell into their portfolio, but in effect served a broad national developmental strategy. Identifying a lead department, centralising decision-making power and integrating the necessary resources for implementation thus assume paramount importance in overcoming bureaucratic barriers and ensuring better accountability. 

The new Ministry of Ecological Environment, for example, will shoulder responsibilities that now spread across six government departments, all related to pollution control. Marine pollution, for instance, is currently overseen by the State Oceanic Administration. Agricultural pollution from different sources is currently dealt with by the Ministry of Agriculture. But oceanic pollution could come from both agricultural land and factories along the shore. By giving the Ministry of Ecological Environment the power to oversee different kinds of pollution, the nation’s pollution control objective can be better served. 

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The creation of the Ministry of Natural Resources paves the way for holistic planning and management of the nation’s forests, grasslands, wetlands, desert and wildlife. The wide spread of natural resources across the country requires huge costs and manpower to monitor, protect and sometimes restore the nation’s assets. On the other hand, some natural resources could be deployed for sustainable use to improve the livelihoods of indigenous people. But both sustainable use, or protection and restoration of natural resources, would require scientific evaluation of the existing treasure, establishing stringent rules for protection and, above all, a strong enforcement agent. Thus, the first task of this new ministry should be to ascertain the ownership of the various natural resources and establish a registry system based on a comprehensive survey. It is expected that the ministry will further improve the rules for commercial use of different types of natural resources, and be called upon to enforce the rules.

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Under the reform package, the task of tackling climate change and emissions reduction will be transferred from the National Development and Reform Commission to the Ministry of Ecological Environment. This change may reflect that climate policy has entered the implementation stage. China’s commitment to carbon reduction has been well demonstrated over the years, particularly when China took a leading role in negotiations on the Paris Agreement in 2015. As emission reduction targets have been properly incorporated into the nation’s five-year plans, the Ministry of Ecological Environment might be a more appropriate agent than the NDRC, which is traditionally a policy coordinator. 

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The new round of institutional reform in China is significant both for the nation and the world. If implemented, it will put China firmly on the road to sustainable development in the next decade. It will provide a stronger institutional footing for Beijing to fulfil its commitment to the Paris accord, the Convention on Biological Diversity and the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. But the challenges of implementing the reform package should not be underestimated. Such an institutional revamp means a revolution, as one commentator in Beijing put it, for regional vested interests. 

Poon Kit is a professor in the School of Public Policy and Management at Tsinghua University. She served as undersecretary for the environment in the Hong Kong SAR Government from 2008 to 2012