Smog-hit China is set to pass a new law that would give Beijing more powers to shut polluting factories and punish officials, and even place protected regions off-limits to industrial development, academics with knowledge of the situation said.
Long-awaited amendments to China’s 1989 Environmental Protection Law are expected to be finalized later this year, giving the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) greater authority to take on polluters.
While some details of the fourth draft are still under discussion, it has been agreed that the principle of prioritizing the environment above the economy will be enshrined in law, according to academics who have been involved in the process. The fourth draft is due to be completed within weeks.
“[Upholding] environmental protection as the fundamental principle is a huge change, and emphasizes that the environment is a priority,” said Cao Mingde (曹明德), a law professor at the China University of Political Science and Law, who was involved in the drafting process.
The first change to legislation in 25 years will give legal backing to Beijing’s newly declared war on pollution and formalize a pledge made last year to abandon a decades-old growth-at-all-costs economic model that has spoiled much of China’s water, skies and soil.
The ministry has called for the law to spell out how new powers can be implemented in practice, but the National Development and Reform Commission, the country’s economic planning agency, prefers broader, more flexible principles.
Local authorities’ dependence on the taxes and employment provided by polluting industries is reflected by the priorities set out in China’s growth-focused legal code, said Wang Canfa (王燦發), an environment law professor who runs the Center for Pollution Victims in China and also took part in the drafting stage.
In the absence of legally enshrined powers, the ministry has often made do with one-off national inspection campaigns to name and shame offenders, as well as ad hoc arrangements with local courts and police authorities to make sure punishments are imposed and repeat offenders shut down. It has also stretched existing laws to its advantage.
Last year, it began to use its powers of approval over environmental impact assessments, which are mandatory for all new industrial projects, to force powerful industrial firms such as Sinopec and the China National Petroleum Corp to cut emissions at some of their plants, threatening to veto all new approvals until the firms met their targets.
The new law would give the ministry the legal authority to take stronger punitive action.
It will also set up a more comprehensive range of punishments, putting an end to a maximum fine system that allowed enterprises to continue polluting once they had paid a one-off fee normally much lower than the cost of compliance.
Cao said the final draft was also likely to impose an “ecological red line” that will declare certain protected regions off-limits to polluting industry, though detailed definitions are likely to come later.
The legislation also proposes to formalize a system by which local cadres are assessed according to their record on pollution issues, including meeting emissions targets.
For nearly two years, academics, ministries, local governments, companies and officials have been debating the changes to the environmental protection law.