China has taken major steps, both domestically and internationally, to show that it is serious about curtailing its emissions and greening its industry. Its Environmental Protection Law, which came into force in January 2015, is bearing fruit, though much remains to be done. At the international level, China played a decisive role in getting the global community to agree to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).


China's Fight Against Smog is Making Progress

China's Environmental Protection Law marked a renewed commitment by the central government to tackle the country's severe environmental problems. The law removed ceilings for fines penalizing polluting companies, allowed NGOs to initiate public interest lawsuits, and encourages environmental enforcement at the local level. It renewed expectations, but also raised skepticism.

The country’s primary goal is to tackle air pollution and prevent another “Airpocalypse” (the three-day shutdown of the capital, Beijing, in December 2015 because of dangerously high levels of smog). Such health crises spurred the Chinese government into declaring a “war on pollution.” The situation has improved, but on the worst days, authorities in Beijing continue to issue air pollution red alerts that shut down schools, factories, and nurseries, and bring city life to a screeching halt. The face masks worn by residents to filter their air serve as a sobering reminder of China’s serious pollution problems, and Chinese citizens often take to social media to express their frustration with the city's air quality.

Studies conducted by NASA and Greenpeace showed that a year into its implementation, the new law had resulted in meaningful, but not extraordinary, reductions in pollution. Both groups found that levels of particulate matter in the air decreased in 2015. The Greenpeace report did, however, note that “80 percent of [Chinese] cities still have poor quality air."

Skeptics have cast doubts on the central government’s ability to compel local authorities to enforce environmental regulations. And despite the government’s openness to NGO-spearheaded public interest lawsuits, only 36 of these cases have been opened due to interference from local courts. Lawsuits brought on by NGOs are often struck down by courts with puzzling interpretations of environmental laws. In one instance, a local court in Zhongwei rejected a lawsuit opened by the Green Development Foundation, stating that preserving local biodiversity was not akin to environmental protection. NGOs, shortstaffed and underfunded, are usually unable to overcome these setbacks.

China’s environment minister, Chen Jining, has promised that the country’s Environmental Protection Law is not an empty husk and calls for patience. He has addressed concerns by explaining that the law's implementation is following three stages of action. In the first stage, only small incremental improvements are made as Chinese authorities grapple with the initially overwhelming levels of emissions.

In the second stage, government regulation and enforcement escalate with the intention of hitting harder emission targets. China’s ratification of the Paris Climate Agreement and embrace of clean energy technology are examples of escalating commitments. But results continue to hinge on environmental factors such as the weather (for instance, smog levels spike in the winter months as citizens turn up their heaters).

By the final stage, smog has been reduced to manageable levels and results are more predictable and less erratic. Chen believes China is in the second stage of this process.


China Strongly Supports Climate Change Action

China’s leadership role in the international negotiations leading to the Paris Climate Agreement, in addition to its more forceful domestic environmental policy, suggest a coming-of-age of its attitude toward environmental protection.

In early September 2016, President Xi stood by President Obama at a G20 meeting and announced China’s formal ratification of the Paris Agreement. This landmark moment in climate action was followed in the coming weeks with ratifications by Brazil, India, and the European Union, which together ensured that the Paris Agreement will enter into force on November 4, before the next U.N. climate meeting (COP22) a few days later.

The ratification of the Paris Agreement signals China’s eagerness to support the global community’s commitment to keep global warming significantly below 2 degrees Celsius. It is a leap in the right direction after China was widely blamed for the failure of COP15 to iron out a climate action plan in 2009.

China has already announced an ambitious plan to tackle its carbon emissions. President Xi has proposed a carbon trading system and pledged to peak China’s emissions by 2030, with renewable energy making up around 20 percent of its electricity generation by then.

China’s current five-year plan (2015-2020) was the first to argue for strong environmental actions to accompany economic growth. It seeks to increase the use of non-fossil fuels by 15 percent, cut fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) levels by 18 percent, and decrease carbon dioxide emissions. A national carbon trading system and green tax are expected to be launched before 2020. The plan also sets a goal to standardize enforcement through the use of “environmental protection bureaus that prevent inconsistent oversight among different districts.”

The real challenge for the Chinese government has been to reconcile a booming economy with new environmental regulations, and to pursue industrialization without encouraging runaway pollution. In truth, environmental protection and economic growth are not at odds. But a change in mindset is required, and local authorities must be provided with information and resources, as well as incentives, to switch to a sustainable growth path.

To demonstrate how growth and sustainability can advance hand-in-hand, the central government has been proactively ushering environmental policy in the city of Shenzen, a fishing village that is rapidly becoming an unrecognizable port city of 11 million. Formed in 2010, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) works to guide cities like Shenzen towards development that encourages investments in green buildings, clean energy, urban spaces, and sustainable transportation while reducing carbon emissions. Of 13 cities that the NDRC is assisting, Shenzen shows the most promise. Shenzen’s carbon-trading system could be a blueprint for China’s countrywide carbon scheme in the future. As a pilot project of the NDRC’s low-carbon program, the success of Shenzen could paint a portrait of the future in China.


Author: Dylan Ruan