Sunday, March 29, 2009

Against crisis, China attempts to tighten enforcement of pollution laws

Following last month's acid spill in Jiangsu, China's government has acted to tighten enforcement of the country's environmental laws. Charles McElwee's China Environmental Law Blog reports that the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) has issued a new Notice containing several innovative policies, including a focus on corrective action, designed to strengthen enforcement of China's environmental laws (see also previous post on problems in the country's environmental enforcement).

This move comes as part of a broader effort by Beijing to improve environmental protection, especially as it concerns water pollution. In February, following the Jiangsu disaster, a senior MEP official acknowledged that despite several previous attempts to control pollution, "The general situation of environmental pollution does not allow us to be optimistic" (see Xinhua).

This month appears to have brought redoubled efforts to redress the situation. An MEP circular issued last week castigated local authorities for lax enforcement of water pollution laws, and to improve water quality monitoring (see Xinhua). Officials also announced today (March 30) that thirteen officials in Henan province were punished (one with a prison sentence) for failing to stop arsenic contamination on a stretch of the Dasha river, which news reports said was some 899 times healthy levels (see Xinhua).

Such efforts to strengthen the enforcement of environmental laws are necessary, but they illustrate an important failing in China's environmental policy: its obsession with the idea of a centralized "policy cudgel." What I mean by this is the insistence that the central government's policies would indeed improve China's environmental situation, if only local governments could be cowed into following orders (this appears to be a primary motivation behind recent MEP Regional Supervision Centers- more on this later). This approach is far too blunt an instrument, particularly when China's legal system doesn't bear anything like the enforcement capabilities wielded by, say, the US Environmental Protection Administration.

Instead of focusing on building a bigger and more potent cudgel, Beijing should focus on the longer-term tasks of enhancing citizen participation and NGO monitoring capabilities to aid in environmental enforcement, while also pursuing political and legal reforms that will make it easier to take polluters, and the corrupt officials that protect them, to court. Promotion of officials based on economic growth statistics should be ended. Moreover, less coercive, market-based approaches like Payment for Ecosystem Services should be pursued aggressively.

Robust environmental protection requires an expensive, resource- and bureaucracy-intensive edifice. But the public interests it protects- clean air, clean water, healthy people- are vital to a prosperous, sustainable society.

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