China considers new powers for pollution ministry in shake-up

February 11, 2014 - 9:33:08 am
BEIJING:  China could grant its under sized environment ministry new powers over resources, possibly allowing it to veto future projects, and more muscle to punish polluters as part of a government shake-up to tackle decades of unchecked growth.

Sources with ties to the leadership said that the government was considering a sweeping reorganisation of cabinet ministries next month that will dissolve the Ministry of Land and Resources and transfer some powers to the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), long regarded as too weak to punish law-breaking polluters.

Amendments to China’s 1989 environmental law, likely to be rubber-stamped at the annual session of the country’s legislature next month, are expected to also give the environment ministry the powers to impose unlimited penalties on firms that fail to rectify problems and allow regulators to suspend or shut down persistent offenders.

A nationwide monitoring system will be established to force industries to disclose exactly how much pollution they cause, and it will become a criminal offence to misuse or switch off pollution control technology and misreport emission levels.

Big polluters routinely exceed government emission limits, say environmentalists, and high pollution levels have sparked widespread social unrest, which is a major concern for China’s leadership. 

The proposals are part of Beijing’s efforts to steer the economy away from investment-led growth, which has fuelled three decades of double-digit expansion per year, towards a lower but more sustainable pace leaning more on consumption and services.

Despite vows to get tough on industry, China’s ability to impose environmental safeguards on local governments and powerful state-owned firms remains in doubt following a series of toxic chemical spills, smog scares and food safety scandals.

“China will not be able to stop polluters from violating the law without stronger penalties,” said Alex Wang, an expert in Chinese environmental law at UCLA in the United States. “For companies making billions of yuan in profit each year, these fines have been less than negligible.”

China has already stripped dozens of powers from ministries, including the powerful National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), in a bid to move away from bureaucratic interference in the world’s second-largest economy and towards better regulation. 

The NDRC, a sprawling superministry with a huge swathe of duties ranging from cutting greenhouse gases to deciding energy prices, has long been under fire for resisting reform and for heavy-handed intervention in the economy.