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Tough Tasks for China’s New Environment Ministry

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China Power

Tough Tasks for China’s New Environment Ministry

Beijing is fundamentally changing its environmental governance, but will it work?

Tough Tasks for China’s New Environment Ministry
Credit: Hanson Lu on Unsplash

On March 13, China announced its most significant environmental governance reforms of this decade. Coming on the heels of President Xi Jinping securing the possibility of long-term presidential powers, the State Council presented draft plans to consolidate environmental policymaking in the newly formed Ministry of Ecological Environment. The effectiveness of this new ministry will inform not only China’s environmental future, but also its stability, its socioeconomic ambitions, and global efforts to address environmental challenges.  

Existing Foundation

Chinese environmental policymaking in the Xi era is increasingly ambitious. Addressing the 19th Party Congress in October 2017, XI referenced the environment more times than the economy (89 mentions to 70) and laid out a vision for cleaner air and water, more efficient energy use, and global leadership on climate change. At the March 5 release of the 2018 Government Work Plan, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang called for closing inefficient coal and steel plants, increasing China’s electric car fleet, banning waste imports, and hardening pollution standards and enforcement.

The spotlight these top leaders place on China’s environment reflects a new generation of enlightened self-interest driving the country’s development. Decades of rapid industrialization brought double-digit GDP growth, booming exports, and expansive poverty reduction. It also brought toxic rivers and groundwater, deplorable urban air quality, and made China the world’s largest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter. Mounting public frustration over the quality of life impacts associated with this environmental decline has become a strategic concern for Chinese leadership, which seeks social stability through cleaner, more balanced economic growth that improves lives in ways beyond increasing incomes.

As a result, China is more stridently applying environmental standards and penalties on factories and power producers — the largest emitters of conventional pollution and GHGs — rolling out non-fossil fuel energy on a historic scale, and designing market instruments to reduce emissions and encourage energy efficiency.

Despite these shifts, China’s environmental policy landscape has remained plagued by overlapping agendas and disproportionate power dynamics, which China’s new environmental regime seeks to address. Its success will hinge on the ability of new institutions to exert influence in wider debates on the country’s strategic priorities, and show effective results from policy implementation.

The Reforms

The State Council plan collapses major responsibilities currently spread throughout different agencies under the new Ministry of Ecological Environment. These include:

  • All responsibilities currently under the former Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP);
  • Climate change and emissions reduction policies currently under National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC);
  • Underground water pollution regulation currently under Ministry of National Land and Resources;
  • Watershed environmental protection currently under Ministry of Water Resources;
  • Agricultural pollution control currently under the Ministry of Agriculture;
  • Marine conservation currently under the State Oceanic Administration;
  • Environmental protection during project implementation currently under State Council’s South-to-North Water Diversion Project Construction Committee.

Current MEP Vice Minister Huang Runqiu claims these changes will solve an “accountability and ownership gap” among disparate agencies and streamline overlapping functions by removing policy making bottlenecks. The Ministry of Ecological Environment is named and designed to displace notions of simple pollution management and extend the role of environmental policymaking to the holistic administration of China’s natural endowment.   

Domestic Impacts

This new ministry will become the most powerful dedicated environmental regulatory body in the history of modern China. It will deploy enforcement staff across the country, and be the instrument for applying China’s centralized environmental statutes.  

But given the MEP’s lackluster record this does not necessarily say much, and the new ministry faces a steep climb, especially on climate change. During the past decade the NDRC, largely under the leadership of prominent climate champion Xie Zhenhua, ushered through China’s commitment to the Paris Agreement and its rollout of the largest emissions trading system in the world. Although these moves have disappointed some for not being faster and more ambitious, they represent a marked shift from China’s previous climate agenda of developing first and cleaning up later. Where the NDRC’s powerful place in China’s policymaking landscape has long been secure, the emergent Ministry of Ecological Environment will have to fight to further advance China’s climate ambition and policy execution.  

Coordination problems will not disappear with China’s ministerial consolidation. Beyond coordinating internally on the myriad issues under its authority, the Ministry of Ecological Environment must work with the newly formed Ministry of Natural Resources and Ministry of Emergency Management, the NDRC, and others to create coherent and effective policies.

International Relevance

The global stakes for success are high. China’s domestic policies have an outsized ability to influence global climate change, foment or curtail transboundary pollution, and send ripples through resource management strategies the world over from its consumption patterns. Where reforms lead to a cleaner environment in China, the world clearly benefits.

What is less clear is whether and how these reforms may influence China’s direct influence on environmental systems beyond its borders. China’s calculations here are fundamentally different from those at home, as the proximate costs of environmental decline are largely absent. Xi has committed to China not exporting pollution via its investments and foreign policy, most notably through its sprawling Belt and Road Initiative. Yet the environmental fallout from China’s construction of military installations in the South China Sea, coal plants in Pakistan, and mineral mines in the Congo paint a different picture.

It will likely take a new generation of Chinese environmental and foreign policy thinking to address these challenges, and China’s mix of global leadership ambitions, emerging “eco-civilizational” principles, and indirect strategic interests provide impetus. This current round of domestic environmental reforms could be a promising start.

Jackson Ewing holds a joint appointment as a senior fellow at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and as an adjunct associate professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy.