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Pushing for green development and lifestyles

2020-04-14author:中国环境与发展国际合作委员会秘书处综合编辑source:China Daily

China has been advancing its ecological construction and environmental governance in depth under the guidance of Xi Jinping's thought on ecological progress, resulting in profound changes in governance methods, working methods and the intensity of efforts and further improvements in governance effectiveness. However, environmental governance is increasingly challenging. The pace at which environmental quality is improved is lower than expected and the administrative governance system has to gradually shift to a phase featuring a combination of market-oriented and administrative governance. How to achieve more economical and efficient ecological restoration and environmental improvement when ecological and environmental protection is a rigid constraint becomes a task to be studied and solved in the new stage. Advanced, applicable, efficient and low-cost environmental technologies and services appear to be more urgently needed.

Since 2013, China has made the important choice of emphasizing environmental protection and green development over a focus on raw GDP growth. Also, government institutions have been reformed to strengthen enforcement of environmental protection laws.

During a visit to Yucun village in Zhejiang province on March 30, President Xi Jinping said: "The environment itself means the economy. If you protect the environment, you will receive rewards from the environment."

A bird’s-eye view of Yucun village in Anji county, Zhejiang province, to which President Xi Jinping paid a visit?on March 30, 2020. [Photo/Xinhua]

And in his speech kicking off the International Horticultural Exposition in Beijing in April 2019, Xi said: "The development model of 'killing the hens for eggs' and 'draining the lake for fish' is at a dead end."

Environmental protection is linked with the broader economic strategy of restructuring industry toward higher value-added manufacturing and services, away from the old reliance on heavy industry, resource extraction and low-tech steel and coal production. Of course, there is sometimes a trade-off between jobs and the environment, but much evidence shows that shutting down inefficient highly polluting factories often clears the way for cleaner, more efficient and more profitable production.

New high-tech industries will not only produce higher-quality products demanded by China's growing middle-income group. The shift toward investment in environmental protection could also allow many Chinese companies to gain a first-mover advantage in many innovative products that will be needed to improve the environment worldwide. For example, China's sales of electric vehicles are about the same as the rest of the world combined and two-thirds of the world's solar panels are produced in China.

Strong enforcement of environmental regulations is key to bringing about the green economy.

In an interview with China Daily, Yang Dongning, a professor of economics at Peking University's Guanghua School of Management, said:"Previous policies with a green focus were not systematic or consistent. When the pollution issue became very prominent, there would be 'storming campaigns'. But since the central leadership with Xi Jinping as the core started in 2013 and the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20) was approved, regulation has been systematic, rather than abrupt. Environmental inspections combined with Party discipline have led to very significant results."

China has seen major improvements in environmental quality since 2013. The average PM2.5 concentration, a measure of the most dangerous kind of air pollution, fell from 93.23 in January 2013 to 63.83 in the third quarter of 2018, according to an index compiled by the Asia Society. This is a fall of 35 percent. Water quality developed more slowly, but still improved 7 percent over the period.

I arrived in Beijing in January 2013, during the famous "airpocalypse" when the air quality index reached its worst point at 993, 40 times the level deemed safe by the World Health Organization. Anyone living in Beijing or in other Chinese cities can testify to the astonishingly rapid improvement in air quality since then.

Fang Li, CEO of World Resources Institute China, said in an interview with China Daily that?her foreign colleagues wanted to know how China improved its environment so quickly. In a 2012 meeting, some said it would take 30 years to improve air quality, as it has in many countries. Fang was more optimistic and thought it would take 10 years — not anticipating the progress that would be possible in just five years.

She explained that two factors made China's rapid progress possible.?First, much environmentally friendly technology already existed, so China did not have to reinvent the wheel.

However, many other countries have not been able to take advantage of these technologies.

Second,?it is key that China's central leadership has a clear plan and strong emphasis on environmental protection." It is important that the top leader insists on ecological protection or conservation," Fang said.

The central authorities can use many kinds of performance reviews to evaluate local governments, putting pollution control as part of their performance review. The Communist Party of China (CPC) has a special supervisory team to determine if local governments seriously implemented the central authorities' policies, including environmental policy. This is really serious for local leaders, she said.

Law enforcement through environmental supervision makes it a serious law, not just a law found on bookshelves, Fang added.

People visit the Xixi National Wetland Park in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province on April 1, 2020. [Lin Yunlong for China Daily]

The government has greatly strengthened environmental protection institutions.

Regulations in 2015 mandated that all local officials be held responsible for environmental outcomes under their control. No longer responsible just for raw GDP growth, their promotions also depended on the outcome of an in-depth environmental responsibility audit.

And in 2018, the State Council, China's Cabinet, created the new Ministry for Ecology and the Environment, which consolidated environmental policy and enforcement that had previously been dispersed among many government agencies.

January 2018 revisions to the tax code implemented sliding pollution tax rates. Since local governments are able to keep 100 percent of pollution tax revenues, they have strong fiscal incentives to carry out strong enforcement.

Among many other measures, soil protection laws enacted on August 31, 2019, required authorities to set national soil pollution standards and conduct regular, publicly available soil examinations.

Fang, who earlier was an environmental inspector, found that strong enforcement often helps technologically advanced companies.

For example, a very poor county in Shandong province previously had many small-scale, highly polluting steel forges that remelted scrap metal. Often they were run by a small village. Even single families had small forges in their backyards. None of them had environmental impact statements.

Therefore the local government closed these illegal small forges and asked a large company to set up a modern forge. Because it had higher quality and a well-known brand, the larger company could sell its products at higher prices. It was also able to offer jobs to the small forge owners who had to shut down.

Previously, the bigger company could not compete with the large number of small companies that were not paying for environmental facilities. The local government told Fang that the tax revenue of the government increased because of the rise in total profits.

Similarly, Yang, of Peking University, pointed to the city of Jieyang, Guangdong province, which is a leading center for manufacturing stainless steel products. The city has around 4,000 stainless steel companies, with over 200,000 workers.

Starting in 2013, the city government and an association of companies worked together to build a new wastewater treatment center and acid treatment center. Now, many of the smaller, undercapitalized companies have closed and others have moved toward higher-quality products that can command prices high enough to pay for the investment.

The city has now attracted investment from more than 30 high-tech environmental protection companies from Germany and other European countries. While some workers lost their jobs, many were rehired by the upgraded factories while others received retraining assistance.

Many CCICED policy recommendations continue to be highly valued by the Chinese government and incorporated into policy practice and exploration in varying degrees in the new year. Some prospective policy recommendations have important implications on future efforts to promote ecological progress. Phase VI of CCICED has established four research Task Forces on the topics of "Global Environmental Governance and Ecological Civilization,"?"Green Urbanization and Environmental Improvement,"?"Innovation, Sustainable Production and Consumption,"?and "Green Energy, Investment and Trade,"?respectively. These four Task Forces serve as a framework under which sector-specific research projects will be gradually launched. As the policy research work advances, this scientific and systematic approach has been recognized and welcomed by the Council Members, Special Advisors and partners.

China continues to see the high-level development of international environmental cooperation, including in its ecological and environmental cooperation with countries along the "Belt and Road"?and with African countries. New measures have been taken to solve problems of global concern, such as protection of marine ecology and environment, response to global climate change, and biodiversity conservation. China's ecological progress is becoming firm and there is strong support for global sustainable development. Innovations in systems, mechanisms, measures, and means that promote ecological progress have enriched the UN 2030 Toolkit for Sustainable Development and represent new contributions made by China to world ecological conservation and environmental governance — even fighting climate change in the new era.

As a direct policy shuttle to the Chinese government which also serves as a bond, a bridge and a window for China and the international community to cooperate in environment and development, CCICED has been changing with the times and carrying out reforms and innovations. In response to the typical and prominent environmental and development issues in China in the new era, it has fully mobilized intellectual resources at home and abroad, conducted much innovative and leading policy research in areas like green urbanization, and achieved periodic results and proposed preliminary forward-looking, strategic and early-warning policy recommendations. It continues to contribute its wisdom and strength to Chinas ecological civilization and sustainable world development.

E-mail:li.yutong@mepfeco.org.cn

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