China’s Push for Environmental Reform 

Jenna Yonenaga, 2014
China’s Prime Minister, Xi Jinping, has recently introduced a series of economic and environmental reforms, emphasizing sustainable economic growth and environmental protection. Although China’s bureaucratic engine may partially hinder its implementation, the result of these new reforms has the potential to impact the country’s environmental footprint, as well as the global economy. 

Environmental Impact 

For the past few decades, China’s rapidly growing population, industry, and economy have degraded the environment around the country. Due to past lenient laws and lack of centralized government enforcement, the environmental health of China has declined. 
  • Energy consumption has increased 130% from 2000 to 2010.
  • The “Airpocolypse”, coined in 2013, refers to China’s air pollution in which there is detection of hazardous particles 40 times the safety levels.
  • Water overuse and contamination due to poor regulation and management has left two thirds of China without safe water.
Shanghai skylineAs a result of China’s environmental problems, the country’s economic and social success has correspondingly dropped. 
  • In 2008, environmental depredation cost 9% of China’s gross national income.
  • In 2010 China’s estimated cost of pollution was 3.5% of gross national product.
  • China faces a demoted international standing as environmental health worsens and global influence increases.
  • Public health has declined along with environmental health, causing an estimated 1.2 million premature deaths in 2010. Consequently, the Chinese public is angered and demands better environmental conditions.
Shanghai skyline. 
Attrib: Wikimedia Commons

Xi’s New Reform 

Prime Minister Xi Jinping has made new reforms, some of which focus on environmental regulation:
  • Plans to remove unnecessary licenses for businesses and in turn prioritize private businesses. 
  • Stricter enforcement will be implemented to cut official spending on personal or unnecessary luxuries. 
  • Improvement of environmental regulations, including:
    • Push for economic and environmental sustainability
    • Emphasis on environmental protection, instead of large economic growth 
    • Stricter punishment for environmental violations 
    • Public reports on air emission and water discharge figures
Despite these negative perceptions, China has made a large, though often overlooked effort to create a cleaner country. 
We have seen that both environmental and economic change go hand in hand. In this case, China has made efforts to create sustainable economic growth with a focus on domestic business and high tech. With less dependence on industrialization there will be less demand for intense energy and material consumption. A sustainable, high tech economy can possibly allow for a brighter and cleaner future in China. 
Although Xi’s proposal seems daunting, many believe that the plan has the potential to succeed. Indeed, there is much public support from average citizens, and vast improvements have been made in climate policy. 
  • China has invested $68 billion to renewable development in 2012, and $54 billion in 2013, making China one of the largest investors in clean energy
  • Carbon dioxide costs in GDP have decreased 28% due to decreased dependence on fossil fuels, and a transition to cleaner energy sources
  • China has announced plans to build natural gas generating stations
  • $286 billion has been pledged to renewable energy, and $376 billion pledged to energy conservation projects
  • It is predicted that by 2020, China’s energy consumption will be similar to that of Japan’s
  • Investment in research and development continue
Leaping Tiger Gorge along the Yangtze River
Attrib: Wikimedia Commons

Bureaucratic Enforcement Problems 

China gorgeAlthough from a distance China’s government seems to be ‘all knowing’ and ‘all controlling’, this has been proven false on an environmental level. Instead of a largely centralized government, these powers are fairly localized; a situation that gives local governments and leaders too much power. 
Xi issued SWAT teams in June 2014 to investigate the true compliance of local leaders with new reforms. He found that local leaders were often ignoring Beijing’s centralized orders, and were acting in ways that benefitted their local economies. 
Xi is currently trying to centralize local power. However, reorganization of this old bureaucracy will prove to be difficult. Xi’s initiative of special SWAT teams, as well as public support for a clean country, show China and the rest of the world the how serious the Chinese government is taking these environmental reforms and their enforcement. 

Emphasis on global economy 

The state of China’s economy, for better or worse, has the ability to strongly impact surrounding economies. With China’s growing global influence, we hope that improvements to environmental regulations will result in both a sustainable economy and a cleaner country. For China to improve their environmental health, they will have to move towards innovation, green technology, sustainable development and a growing economy that reflects these attributes, as well as an effective strategy of enforcing environmental regulations. 

Further Reading: 

China’s Environmental Crisis, Council on Foreign Relations 
China’s Enforcers, Foreign Affairs
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