Thursday, November 13, 2008

China's Environmental Regionalism

Last Thursday, Beijing played host to the 4th Regional Air Quality Management Conference, a joint initiative of the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the US Environmental Protection Agency. CGS was in attendance for the first day of a conference that, true to its name, emphasized the necessity of regional approaches in combating air pollution. This seems pretty straightforward: air pollution doesn't respect municipal boundaries, so in major metropolises it is usually a multi-jurisdictional concern. But in China, discussions about environmental regionalism serve to highlight continuing gaps in the country's environmental governance structure, and so are worthy of our further attention.

American experts highlighted the trend in US air pollution control policy towards increasing regionalism. Art Williams, a consultant with the Regulatory Assistance Project, noted the growth in Regional Planning Organizations as a result of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, which serve as an important forum for federal-state cooperation. Metropolitan Planning Organizations have a similar function, but focus on urban areas instead of large geographic regions. Nonetheless, these MPOs are important because, according to Williams, they help to focus transportation policy-making and coordination, and because federal transportation spending is tied to sound planning processes by these MPOs. These kinds of regional approaches, American experts agreed, were crucial to successfully reducing air pollution while also expanding regional economies and populations.

China has also given rise to some successful regional air pollution control efforts, most notably in the Pearl River Delta, which includes Hong Kong, Macau, and Guangdong Province. A representative of the Guangdong Provincial Environmental Protection Bureau described the creation in 2003 of a regional air pollution management plan, and joint daily air quality monitoring since 2005. In 2008, the "Guangdong-Pearl River Delta Atmospheric Pollution Mitigation Joint Conference" (广东省珠江三角洲大气污染防治联席会议) pledged to develop a regional control scheme for atmospheric pollutants, as well as measurement and verification systems for pollution control. The Bureau outlined a regional strategy based on four pillars, joint policy, research, emissions reduction engineering, and regional mitigation technology. The Conference will remain the primary coordination body, with a subsidiary Office and Research Center, each overseeing policy and research expert networks.

Such structures represent a good start towards genuine environmental regionalism. However, these structures are not as robust as their American counterparts, principally because they lack some of the legislative buttressing. Yan Gang of the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning offered a compelling vision of regional air pollution management in the Yangtze Delta region, centered around Shanghai. Gang called for a regional air quality management board, chartered and overseen by the Ministry of Environmental Protection, as well as a regional center for pollution forecasting and policy development, accompanied by a regional monitoring network. Perhaps most boldly, Gang called for a single platform to integrate energy-air quality policy.

This far-reaching vision raises wider questions of what greater environmental regionalism might mean for China. In America, as Mr. Williams pointed out, regional consortia have been used to develop policy leadership in areas such as climate change, where central government action has been perceived as being behind the curve. Environmental regionalism might help to ease policy coordination between the central, provincial, and municipal levels of government, and might make enforcement simpler. It may also help to circumvent the entrenched local political interests which so notoriously undermine environmental policy enforcement throughout China, and may provide a more accessible structure for local stakeholders to access and engage. Perhaps most importantly, however, greater environmental regionalism might create the necessary political space for local policy entrepreneurship. As several of the Conference speakers pointed out, there are three obvious candidates for greater environmental regionalism: Beijing-Tianjin, the Shanghai/Yangtze River Delta area, and the Pearl River Delta. All face more complex environmental challenges than the nation as a whole, including severe air and water pollution combined with a high concentration of greenhouse gas intensive industries. Given both political support and freedom by the central government, consortia in these regions may well develop innovative solutions to their environmental problems.

There are stumbling blocks, to be sure. Regional structures would most likely require significant financing from the central government, and certainly would need to operate with a degree of political cover from the center. Central government agencies would perhaps sense threats to their own power and influence. But it does seem that many of China's most pressing environmental problems would be better addressed by a regional governance structure. US and other foreign assistance in the environmental area could be shifted towards regional actors; EPA might make it a priority, for example, to help establish a Yangtze Delta air pollution control consortium. Regardless, CGS came away from the conference convinced that both China and its friends abroad should work to strengthen environmental regionalism throughout the country.


  1. Dear Scott,

    Very interesting.

    Were there any discussion how '1 country 2 systems' may affect this regional approach on environmental management in PRD?

  2. Hi Scott,

    Interesting discussion and thanks for it. I am coming to Beijing in February to teach Energy Law and my course in the Law of Global Warming to students at CUPL. We should talk off-site about that.

    -- Joel

    Professor Joel B. Eisen
    University of Richmond School of Law