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China’s new policy opens a door for ecology
2015-10-19 00:00:00

The new reform package introduced by China, the “Ecological Civilisation”, targets to become a signal that the number one growing economy is ready to take a look far in the future and assemble a strategy for the long term. The plan is both very detailed and ambitious, as it establishes clear goals to be reached by the end of 2020.

The Integrated Reform Plan for Promoting Ecological Civilization was drafted last month by Chinese rulers and its main points cover the topics of preventing pollution and a better management of natural resources. An excellent English translation was made public while President Xi Jinping’s continued its visit in the US and attended a meeting at the UN headquarters in New York. The message is a clear one. China is ready to face a chapter on which it received continuous criticism in the past years. Being issued at the highest level of power (by the State Council and the Central Committee), this is a step forward China won’t be able to retract.

 The “Ecological Civilisation” starts by being an administrative reform. A new government institution will be created in order to take ownership over all the natural resources. The new political construction will go beyond what is now the Ministry of Land Resources (MLR), controlling how natural resources are used or conserved. The idea of one department having full control comes a as countermeasure for the existing problems regarding jurisdiction limits. Just to give an example on how multiple departments intersect, management of a river in China is currently spread across the Ministry of Water and Resources (MWR) for water allocation, Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) for water quality, Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (MOHURD) for wastewater treatment, and Ministry of Agriculture (MoA) for agricultural runoff.

Centralisation is one measure intended to establish clear responsibilities. Up to this point, many ecological reforms were being delayed because it was not clear which institution were at the top of the decision making process. Reuniting all resources for environmental protection under one umbrella will streamline the ongoing process of calibration. As with all natural resources belonged to the people, according to the communist ideology, there was no one to blame or held responsible for using them irresponsible. New measures included in the reform state that government officials as well as party members will be held responsible for any actions leading to environmental damages.

The use of integrated plans will prevent the change in leadership to affect long-term goals. Also, the overview should no longer be restricted to only one plan, as complete blueprints include aspects of urban industrial, rural and protected areas. Better cooperation between local authorities and county governments will result in yielding higher efficiency over time. Public participation in the process of urban planning is also now strongly encouraged. Local residents as well as important voices from the private sector will be now heard more often in meetings deciding future directions of development. The power and influence of the local people’s congress will only increase as a result of introducing the reforms.

The main concern is now oriented in keeping all activities with an impact on the environment at a level that doesn’t surpass the environmental capacity. Population growth, the development of the industrial sector, and the overall economic growth, are all risk factors no longer possible to ignore.

The new “Ecological Civilisation” reserves an important role for civil society and the public, as supervisors of the whole process of developing, implementing and conserving new policies regarding natural resources and environmental protection. The manifest is not clear on how this will be achieved, but it’s worthy to assume that local governments and other authorities more oriented towards change and progress will find a way to welcome the public opinion more often in matters that concern them directly.

International cooperation is put on the frontispiece of the new agenda, as the plan recognizes that China should “deepen exchange and practical cooperation with other countries, borrow from their advanced technology and their valuable experience”. Small pilot initiatives are also encouraged in order to extend the reach and effectiveness of the Ecological Civilisation.

The plan presented by Chinese officials also brought to the discussion table the highly debated problem regarding limiting total carbon emissions. As both national and international initiatives have settled for reaching certain goals in the future, China is in a desperate need to follow the trend and accept a schedule. The plan behind the Ecological Civilisation also refers to the need of putting other pollutants under strict control, by improving the pollutant emissions permit system, and by introducing government procuring services to assist in the management of environmental protection. Full disclosure of mandatory environmental information provided by companies will add the needed transparency, which will make China a world player with all its cards on the table. Establishing a new national supervision and inspection system for environmental performance of government officials will act as a measure of controlling the whole mechanism from a central point.

Although it promises to change completely the way China deals with the reality of current environmental problems, the exposed plan fails to provide clear answers on how all above mentioned will be achieved. Many aspects like the involvement and role of civil society are still left under a bit of shadow. Full implementation is still a long way ahead, but the fact that an overall deadline was established for 2020 encourages us to believe that China has the will and resources to bring to life a framework of new structures able to put the plan in action.