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China to establish environment ministry this year


12 February 2008

Hepeng Jia/Beijing, China 

An environment ministry with new powers to enforce green legislation is to replace China's State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) later this year, Chemistry World has learned. 

Hong Yaxiong, deputy director at SEPA's department of policy, said that the move would help the government stop more of its environmental policies falling by the wayside because the central government has been unable to enforce them locally. 

'The difficulty in implementing [environmental] law and the under-staffing of our agency are expected to be largely resolved with the upcoming new ministry,' Hong told Chemistry World on the sidelines of the first International Forum on China Environmental Investment in Beijing, on 23 and 24 January.

"The difficulty in implementing [environmental] law and the under-staffing of our agency are expected to be largely resolved with the upcoming new ministry"
- Hong Yaxiong

China has passed over 100 environmental laws and regulations, according to a recent article in Science [1]. But the plethora of new rules has failed to curb pollution, which is estimated to have cost the country US$200 billion in 2005 alone - a figure equivalent to 10 per cent of its gross domestic product.

China's problems with pollution
China's problems with pollution have worsened

© NASA
The creation of the ministry was first mooted last year, after an OECD report called for China to step up its environmental efforts. It is now likely to be created during the upcoming plenary meeting of the 11th National People's Congress, China's top legislature, between 5 and 20 March. On several recent occasions, Zheng Xinli, deputy director of the Department for Policy Research of the Chinese Communist Party, has suggested that several big ministries could be born at the meeting. 

Greater powers 

The new ministry will be based on SEPA but may absorb environmental responsibilities from other ministries. The Ministry of Land and Resources or the State Administration of Forestry could also be merged into the new environment ministry, though that has not been officially confirmed. 

Chang Miao, director of the Institute of Environmental Policy at Tsinghua University, says the new ministry could boost the government's ability to enforce environmental laws. 'The new environment ministry could force businesses to reduce . their emissions,' she told Chemistry World

But according to some working in the area, there is still a lot more to be done to improve the way policy is made and implemented by government. 

"There is still some disconnect between environmental testing by academic labs and real, dynamic environmental information"
- Qiu Tongyu

'There is still some disconnect between environmental testing by academic labs and real, dynamic environmental information,' said Qiu Tongyu, China commercial manager of the US environmental engineering company Hach, which has already seen a 10-fold growth in revenues since it arrived in China eight years ago. 

One Environmental Protection Bureau official from Sichuan Province, who asked not to be identified, said that even with a powerful new ministry in place, effective enforcement of environmental laws would still depend on local leaders. 'If [local officials] continue to prioritise economic growth over environmental protection, our work could still be difficult,' he said. 

As well as plans for the new ministry, China is also pushing ahead with a huge environmental investment plan that was announced at the end of last year. According to Hong, to achieve the environmental improvement goals set out in the plan, around 1.53 trillion yuan (US$212.5 billion) will be made available in 2006-2010, of which 150 billion yuan (US$20.8 billion) will be from central government, with the rest to come from local governments or the private sector. 

References

1 J Liu and J Diamond, Science, 2008, 319, 37 (2008 (DOI: 10.1126/science.1150416)

Also of interest

National strategy to fight pollution unveiled

Chemistry is central to keeping China clean Also available in Mandarin

China's pollution headache

Year-long PAH survey across China finds coal the culprit

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