China’s legislature passed the biggest changes to its environmental protection laws in 25 years, punishing polluters more severely as the government works to limit smog and contaminated water and soil linked to three decades of economic growth.
Amendments to the law “sets environmental protection as the country’s basic policy,” the official Xinhua News Agency reported yesterday. The rules hadn’t been changed since first enacted in 1989 as China began consuming more energy as the most-populous country grew into a global manufacturing hub.
Now the world’s biggest carbon emitter, China has moved to address the environmental damage that has been a byproduct of its breakneck economic growth and become a leading cause of social unrest. Government reports and recent comments from top officials about pollution have revealed the extent of the damage and health issues related to China’s soil, water and air.
The amendments give the public and government “powerful new tools” to cut pollution, Barbara Finamore, senior attorney and Asia director at the Natural Resources and Defense Council in New York, said in an interview. “The pollution is now impossible to ignore,” she said. “This is very big news.”
The changes crucially provide “a strong incentive for polluters to come into compliance” as violators can be fined on a daily basis, Finamore said.
The amendments become effective from Jan. 1, Xinhua said, citing the Standing Committee of National People’s Congress, China’s top legislature. The revised law will also offer channels for whistle-blowers to make environment-related appeals, Xinhua said.
Public-interest lawsuits have proven especially effective in tackling pollution in the U.S., and the NRDC has long advocated for them in China, Finamore said. “The level of public concern is higher than any time I’ve seen in the last 20 years in China,” she said.
Previously, polluters could often pay less in fines than it cost to install and operate pollution controls, lawmakers said during discussions on the legislation.
New measures such as heavier fines, naming and shaming of companies and the demotion, sacking or criminal prosecution of local government officials who don’t enforce regulation or manipulate data are expected to be more effective, Xinhua said.
The legislation took place two days after the Ministry of Land and Resources said almost 60 percent of the groundwater at 4,778 sites monitored across China was of poor or extremely poor quality with excessive amount of pollutants. A nine-year government survey found unacceptable levels of mercury, arsenic and other pollutants in 16 percent of the land tested, the ministry said.