For the first time in 25 years, China revised its Environmental Protection Law, hoping to curb the nation’s disastrous march toward unlivable cities, inedible food, and undrinkable water. The revisions are a big step in fixing China’s pollution problems, but Premier Li Keqiang’s declaration of a war on pollution appears to be a trifle one-sided so far. However, China and its development-at-all-costs mantra might be able to turn the tide if these new revisions can give the Ministry of Environmental Protection the power it needs.
China’s air pollution gets all the press, largely because it’s perceptibly dystopian, but even smog is rarely given media coverage outside of major cities where all the journalists are safely stored. However, the damage being done to China’s soil and water is even more stark. Soil pollution, for example, has gotten well out of hand. According to the Ministry of Environmental Protection, one-fifth of agricultural land is already polluted to dangerous proportions with everything from cadmium and lead to arsenic and mercury, particularly in rice-growing areas.
The fact that all of the above information about China’s soil pollution was previously a “state secret” is part of China’s problem in solving its pollution woes. Discussing China’s horrific pollution just a few years ago was forbidden. Now, the government and press can discuss the situation somewhat openly; perhaps, then, it is not too late to make up for what Xinhua called “decades of reckless pollution.”
China’s water is in an even worse state than its soil: 59.6 percent of the nation’s underground water is of poor to very poor quality. The scarcity of clean water in major cities is causing serious economic problems, something Beijing is finding out by having to build a desalination plant on the coast to quench the city’s thirst. The desalinated water will cost literally twice as much as the current tap water in Beijing.
China’s revisions to the Environmental Protection Law are an attempt to address these serious issues. The law features tougher strictures on polluters and some explanations as to current levels of tolerance. Some of the punishments are tolerable for big polluters; for example, the deputy director of the Legislative Affairs Commission of the NPC gave an example yesterday saying that “an electricity generator complex with production capacity of 100,000 kilowatt needs to pay between 500,000 and 600,000 yuan in environmental protection fees to alleviate and control pollution.” While heavier punishments will certainly annoy or even discourage future polluters, it does little to stop current polluters who don’t mind the fine.
All of these proposed punishments have had little real effect in the past, largely due to the inability to enforce the laws and rampant corruption. In 2013, it was even said that serious polluters could face the death penalty.
However, in a hopefully more useful move, these new revisions say that, according to Xinhua, “If an enterprise illegally discharges pollutants and is fined and asked to correct its wrongdoing by authorities, but refuses to make corrections, the enterprise may face a fine which accumulates daily. In the past, enterprises received a one-off fine.” This stricture, if ever actually enforced in the past or future, could be the weapon China is looking for in its war on pollution. Another aspect of the new revision says that violators will be “named and shamed” and that perpetrators will be held criminally responsible. The new laws also put local government officials in the firing line, saying that they will be fired or demoted for falsifying data or ducking environmental impact assessments. Given the current climate of open season on corrupt officials, this could be highly useful.
Of course, as ever, the problem in China is not fancy, hard-line new regulations; it is a matter of enforcement. In short, legislative reform has never been China’s problem when it comes to pollution; it’s always enforcement. The hope is that these revisions will give the Ministry of Environmental Protection the power it needs to enforce these new, high-minded eco-protection laws.