We have big hopes for 2015 with the amended environmental law in effect, the promise of safe drinking water by the government and the anticipated ‘Water Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan’, yet there hasn’t been much action.
Air pollution dominates environment issues at Nation People’s Congress
“Under the Dome”, a documentary investigating China’s air pollution that garnered over 100 million views within 48 hours of its release, clearly shows that the Chinese people are frustrated with pollution.
Pollution is obviously also on the minds of China’s top leadership with Premier Li saying in this year’s National People’s Congress (NPC) opening session, “Environmental pollution is blight on people’s quality of life and a trouble that weighs on their hearts” adding, “we must fight it will all our might.” It was the same time last year that Premier Li declared “War on pollution”.
“Environmental pollution is blight on people’s quality of life and a trouble that weighs on their hearts”
Premier Li Keqiang, NPC 2015 Opening Session
So far this year’s NPC has yet to deliver a significant environment announcement. Actually, they have been sending mixed messages. “Under the Dome” went online a week before the NPC and was still accessible even two days after Premier Li’s speech. Recently appointed Environment Minister Chen Jining even praised the documentary saying, “I think this work has an important role in promoting public awareness of environmental health issues, so I’m particularly pleased about this event.” However, as of 7 March the documentary has been blocked in China, mixed messages?
‘Water Ten’ where is it?
We expected the ‘Water Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan’ (known as the ‘Water Ten’) to be released at the NPC but instead it can be expected “in the near future”, according to Minister Chen.
‘Water Ten’ still MIA
Expected “in the near future”
Whilst this is disappointing, the ‘Water Ten’ was for first time mentioned in the 2015 Government Work Report. We expected the ‘Water Ten’ to plug gaps in collective wastewater treatment and mismatched industrial water standards but according to the report it will: strengthen water pollution management on rivers, lakes and oceans; prevent and control water pollution from agricultural non-point source pollution; and implement “source to tap” supervision process.
Aside from this, there have been some positive announcements on water, including:
- To boost rural drinking water safety (get the latest on China’s rural drinking water in our article “Rural Drinking Water: Far From Solved”
- To speed up rural water price reform;
- To strengthen polluted water management and water pollution source management;
- To strengthen rural non-point pollution management (including domestic sewage, waste & livestock pollution); and
- To intensify law enforcement to prevent industry and urban pollution source transfers to rural areas.
Announcements focus on rural water
Four of the five points listed above have a rural aspect to them. This rural focus is due to a shift by industries from urban to rural areas. According to Minister Chen the rural discharge of certain pollutants is now greater than that from cities, adding, “The overall ecological environment degradation has not been contained”. The first step to tackling a problem is admitting that there is one. We remain hopeful and there are solutions out there, see here and here.
According to insiders, the ‘Water Ten’ has been approved and is just waiting for release from the State Council. Fingers crossed it’s soon!
New environment minister promising but seems more focused on air
At the NPC this year 30 minutes of Minister Chen’s press conference on 7 March was just on air pollution with the remaining 60 minutes on all other environmental issues (water, soil, climate change, rural etc…). Air pollution is important but water pollution is more pervasive and harder to solve.
Environment Minister making all the right noises, just need some more on water
Nevertheless, Minister Chen is making all the right noises at his first NPC as Environment Minister with strong commitments on improving supervision of local governments, increasing public participation in the war and enforcing “green” laws.
“Air and water” linked in “water and energy”
There have been documentaries on China’s water pollution in previous years but they have not had nearly as much attention as “Under the Dome”. Maybe air pollution gets more attention than water because it’s more visible? But water pollution impacts all aspects of life – health, food, economy, power and the list goes on. Recognition of water’s fundamental role is being more widely recognized, especially its role in China’s future energy as evidenced by the various projects and reports on the Water-Energy-Nexus being released in the last six months.
One such is the “China National Coal Cap Plan and Policy Research” project, which is coordinated by the Natural Resources Defense Council. The project is supported by international organizations as well as over 20 leading Chinese partners including government think tanks, research institutes and industry associations. The project aims to develop a comprehensive roadmap and policy package for establishing and implementing a binding national coal consumption cap. The first international workshop of this project was hosted in Beijing in November 2014. Following the workshop, a series of reports on coal consumption scenarios taking into consideration water have been released. The Wilson Center in coordination with Greenovation Hub released “China’s Water-Energy-Food Roadmap” in February 2015.
China Water Risk will soon too be publishing a report on water and power so, watch this space.
Still big hopes for 2015
As mentioned in our investigative report with chinadialogue “China’s Long March To Safe Drinking Water”, it can be difficult to even identify pollution sources, let alone prevent it. Key to doing so will be the government delivering its ‘big stick’ and the ‘Water Ten’ or one can’t stop pollution and deliver safe drinking water.
Current environment protection and enforcement systems suffer from systemic issues
In the meantime it’s ok that the government is focused on following through on previous promises and targets, rather than setting new ones. Having said this, it doesn’t mean there aren’t new targets. A wide range of pollution emission targets have been set for the year and support for the development of new energies (solar, wind, biomass, hydro and nuclear) reinforced.
China’s current environment protection and enforcement systems suffer from systemic issues. Unclear and overlapping responsibilities make decisive and effective action difficult. For example, in water source management there are four ministries with some sort of responsibility or plan to protect an aspect(s) of water sources. See more on this in our article, “Water Source: Who is Responsible?“
“We are going to punish, with an iron hand, any violators who destroy [the] ecology or environment, with no exceptions”
President Xi Jinping, NPC 2015
Though there may only have been limited advances against pollution last year they were solid ones. Professor Wang Canfa from the University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, thinks the amended environmental protection law marks a new era in environmental legislation in China, see more here. Lookinng forward, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate is planning a nearly two year crackdown on “environmental crime” (March 2015 – December 2016) and President Xi Jinping said at the NPC, “We are going to punish, with an iron hand, any violators who destroy [the] ecology or environment, with no exceptions”. With all this, how can we not still have big hopes for 2015.
- Environmental Law: A New Era - Professor Wang Canfa from the University of Political Science and Law in Beijing thinks China has a relatively perfect system on environmental law and that the amended law marks a new era. See why
- Water Source: Who Is Responsible? - Data shows water source quality improving but some experts question how accurate this can be without a specific standard? Moreover, pollutants, ineffective treatment & unclear ministry responsibilities pose threats. CWR’s Hongqiao Liu expands
- Rural Drinking Water Far From Solved – Experts say the Chinese government’s plan to ‘completely solve’ the problem of rural drinking water safety by the end of 2015 is a ‘mission impossible’. Find out why and more as CWR’s Hongqiao Liu expands
- Taking The Waste Out Of Wastewater – Caps on water withdrawals & discharge plus gaps between supply & demand mean companies need to reuse water to ensure their water security. Award winning Dr. Matthew Silver and William Dean tells us how Cambrian technology can do this
- Soil & Water Pollution: Forecasting Impact – In the face of large scale soil and groundwater pollution a risk and megasite approach is best to remediate in a cost effective and sustainable manner. Deltares’ Dr. Annemieke Marsman outlines the strategy they developed
- 8 Game-Changing Policy Paths – There has been a fundamental shift in planning China’s future growth with changes in regulatory landscape due to multiple polices set & changes in law. Many come into full effect in 2015. Get on top of these
- The War on Water Pollution – Premier Li Keqiang has just declared war on pollution. Tan expands on the government’s stratagems & offensives and fundamental changes required to shore up the MEP’s arsenal in order to wage a successful war
- Pollution: It Doesn’t Pay to be Naughty – State Council wants to use the enforcement of law & regulation “to force the economy to transform and upgrade”. See how violation cost surges with daily fines, new standards & discharge permit trading in a bid to push China to go clean
- Pollution: 5 Reasons to Remain Optimistic – Given the recent release of depressing groundwater & soil pollution statistics, Debra Tan gives us 5 reasons to stay optimistic – from changes in the law to water tariff hikes in Beijing
- Water Over Energy Security – In-depth interview with Li Junfeng, the Director General of China’s National Center of Climate Change Strategy Research on the future of coal, gas, nuclear, hydro & renewable energy given limited water and why China has to “walk on two legs” towards energy security
- Water Drives Coal Reform – To ensure energy security, China needs to protect its No 1 fuel source against water scarcity. Feng Hu takes a closer look at what the new water-for-coal plan and other related policies mean for coal and coal-related industries
- Water for Coal: Thirsty Miners?: With up to 83% of China’s coal reserves in water stressed & scarce regions, the recent CLSA report asks if there is enough water to grow coal production. If not, what are our options? Debra Tan expands
- China: No Water, No Power: HSBC asks if China has enough water to fuel its power expansion as China plans to add more than the total installed power capacity of the US, UK & Australia by 2030
- Elephants in the Room: With coal-fired power plants and hydropower doubling by 2020, Debra Tan discusses coal, financing the power build out and dams. Is a fundamental shift required to work round these elephants?