By James Noble
May 1, 2014
For the first time in 25 years, China has revised the country’s environmental laws that punish polluters, ensuring that environmental protection is coordinated alongside economic growth and clearing the path for citizens to take legal action against polluters.
The world's largest emitter of carbon, China will enact its new environmental laws on January 1, 2015.
Chinese authorities are concerned that deteriorating environmental conditions will stir social unrest and pose a threat to Communist Party rule. In April hundreds of protestors clashed with police while demonstrating against a proposed petrochemical plant in the southern China city of Maoming, in Guangdong province.
Among the biggest changes was removal of the cap on environmental fines. Previously, polluters could often pay less in fines than it cost to install and operate pollution controls; soon, however, China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) will be able to impose much harsher economic penalties. As added incentive to follow the rules, the new revisions also call for polluting enterprises to be “named and shamed." Polluters could even face prison time.
Local governments will also be held responsible. Officials can be fired or demoted for covering up environmental breaches or for concealing environmental information. The prominence given to open information and public participation has given the Chinese public greater responsibility to oversee the enforcement of the new environmental regulations. Citizens have been repeatedly blocked from using the courts to address damage caused by factories and power plants, with these new revisions that will no longer be the case.
China's shift on environmental regulations has been accelerating. The country has poured billions of dollars into clean energy and pollution control technologies, launched carbon pricing mechanisms; and granted officials power to ban cars from city centres and to close factories during heavy smog.