China Gives Teeth, Finally, to Beijing’s New ‘War on Pollution’

Few things in China have remained the same since 1989—the year tanks fired on students near Tiananmen Square, the Berlin Wall fell, and the USSR began to crumble.

But one important Chinese law passed in 1989 stood untouched until last week: China’s outmoded environmental protection law. In the intervening 25 years, Beijing’s lawmakers separately amended and updated statutes on air and water pollution, but the framework for enforcing environmental standards remained toothless and anachronistic.

The new environmental protection law—approved last Thursday by China’s National People’s Congress—differs significantly from the previous one, especially on enforcement. “That’s always been the weak link,” says Barbara Finamore, senior attorney and Asia director at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), who first worked in mainland China in 1990. “The recent level of public outrage over pollution in China is something I’ve never seen before. It’s led the government to realize they have to take pollution control seriously,” she says. “They’ve paid it lip service for many years, but now I think they might really mean it.”

The new law notably increases penalties for environmental infractions. In the past, polluting factories faced one-time penalties—which often were cheaper to pay than the cost of equipment to fix the problem, such as smokestack scrubbers or water filtration systems. Under the new law, which will take effect Jan. 1, 2015, polluting enterprises can be charged fines that compound daily so long as a problem exists. Moreover, key personnel at polluting factories and local officials responsible for oversight can face possible short-term detention for pollution violations, putting them personally on the line.

The amended law also stipulates that environmental nonprofits registered with governments at city level or higher in China will have the right to bring public interest litigation against polluting enterprises. “That’s one of the most important revisions,” says Finamore, adding that she estimates “about 300 environmental nonprofits throughout China” will qualify to file public interest lawsuits. “In the past, China’s courts would simply refuse to accept these cases.”

Ma Jun, founder of the Beijing nonprofit Institute for Public & Environmental Affairs, says that public participation is necessary to galvanize political will to address China’s enormous environmental challenges. He also finds several provisions in the new law encouraging. “There’s a requirement for the government and companies to publicly release certain kinds of environmental information—specifically, pollution records and blacklists” of enterprises in known violation of green laws. As he interprets it, “The amended law clearly gives ordinary people the right to know and supervise” how antipollution measures are enforced.

Yet one key element is missing: a common, easily accessible public platform to collect such information. “This is really a problem,” says Ma. “Without a single platform, information transparency is not consistent or systematic. It’s cumbersome to individually check records.” He recommends that China take inspiration from the U.S. Toxics Release Inventory, a public database of toxic chemicals and waste discharges. If China’s citizen-led environmental groups had both the right to sue and access to real-time pollution data from specific factories, says Ma, “the combination could be very powerful.”

[Bloomberg Businessweek]