China's environmental ministry lacks bite

Feature Story - 2009-03-30
China’s environmental ministry turned one year old on the weekend. Greenpeace China takes a look at how this youngster has fared at dealing with China’s biggest crisis – its environmental nightmare.

China's Ministry of Environmental Protection was only set up in March 2008.

It sounds unbelievable considering the giant environmental problems facing China but until March last year there was no ministry dedicated to environmental governance.

According to its website the MEP's mission is to "prevent and control environmental pollution, protect nature and ecology, supervise nuclear safety, safeguard public health and environmental safety, and promote the harmony betweenn man and nature."

So one year on, what do we think?

Credit to green credit

First of all we welcome its upgrade to ministerial status. That move showed a serious political intention to do something about China's environmental degradation.

We are also impressed with efforts the MEP has made to expand its power and diversify measures by working with other parts of government, such as those dealing with economics and trade, and the banking sector.

It has been working to set up measures such as its green credit policy where big polluters are less likely to get credit.

Ministry lacks bite

But when it comes to enforcing green regulations at the local level the MEP still has no "real teeth."

In Beijing, the ministry talks the talk but locally it just doesn't have the power.

The MEP needs more authority and more resources to make local environmental bureaus toe the line.

Development at all costs

Back in 2006, China began toying with the idea of bringing in a green GDP, which would calculate economic losses due to environmental problems.

The plan was later abandoned but the MEP needs the power to put something in place that would give local government strong incentives to become greener.

The MEP needs to have the power to shift local government from their "development at all costs" philosphy.

Loopholes, loopholes

Last year a new Environmental Information Disclosure (EID) regulation ruled that companies which had previous pollution records must release their environmental data to the public.

It also gave the public the right to apply for environmental information from local environmental bureaus.

The problem is the EID regualtion is worded too vaguely.

When officials are reluctant to release their environmental information they can easily dodge doing so by saying the information is a commercial secret.

Times of crises

In these times of global financial crises, the MEP's job is even more important and even more difficult.

If it is to come anywhere near achieving its mission, the MEP needs much more power and many more resources.

China's economic crisis is serious indeed. But the looming environmental crisis is many times more frightening.

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