China Consolidates Environmental Powers in Massive Government Shakeup

China knows its future success as an economic power requires doing something radical about pollution and its country’s impact on climate change. Its just announced centralization of environmental management is going to make that a lot easier.

A heavy pall of deadly pollution hangs over Beijing in 2010. It is even worse now. Photo: Cory M. Grenier, CC

Only a short time after it was announced that President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China need no longer worry about term limits, many changes began to fall in place in how the government would be restructured as Xi himself consolidates power. One major change recently announced puts the insurance and banking industries all under the control of one agency. That move was a big enough one, done in part because China’s government realizes it may have a harder time controlling the reins of an economy if a financial crisis like the one of only a few years ago were to hit again.

Even more significant may be the latest structural change just announced publicly by the PRC government.

In one sweeping move, the former Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) is going through a drastic makeover. Its new name will become the Ministry for Ecological Environment. That phrase intentionally shifts the wording from one of simply acting as guardian over the environment to one of being responsible for intentionally driving the environmental future of the country as its master planner and steward.

Beyond that phrasing is also the internal restructuring of the many different agencies within the country which have a direct impact on every aspect of the air, soil, and waterways. In very short order, all the  various environmental responsibilities that used to be handled by the separate ministries governing land, water, and agriculture are going under the new ‘one roof’ of the Ministry for Ecological Environment.

As a further example of the changes, waterways both along the coast and within the country will now be regulated under this new agency as well. This includes moving responsibility for the State Oceanic Administration under this new structure. It also takes control of a country-wide water project where rivers which often flood in the south are currently being re-routed to help ease drought in the much drier northern regions of the country.

The National Development and Reform Commission’s responsibilities for helping craft a low-carbon future for the country are also being pulled out from that organization and moved into the new one. A plan by the government to structure a China-wide carbon trading system will also move into the new organization.

In a statement about the changes, Tommy Xie, director of the Secretariat for the Clean Air Alliance of China (CAAC) said, “With the new management structure, the efforts for air, water, soil and ecological protection will be more coordinated.”

Xie went on to make one other critical point. “It is also a sign,” he said, “that China will continue the unprecedented commitment and investment to improve environmental quality in the future, which will generate significant market potential for clean technologies.”

That last comment shows even further how the structural changes from this new organization will help drive both environmental and economic growth, ideally in a well-integrated fashion.

Centralizing the functions of all these bodies will allow new integrated policies to be launched simultaneously, without the previous challenges of having so many parallel groups making different decisions that had to be sorted out after the fact. It also could allow major restrictions on carbon emissions for industry to happen while simultaneously forcing phase-out of coal power plants, ramping up wind and solar, and transforming ground transportation closer to a 100% electric vehicle economy.

It will likely further ramp-up what is one of China’s perhaps least known economic achievements, that it is the producer of the largest number of electric vehicles of any nation in the world.

The integrated policies will also bring China into further domination of the solar power industry worldwide, a place where its past early governmental investments have been paying off for years

After the radical shakeup is complete, the challenge will be first for the country to properly consider the right number of options as it takes charge of its environment. Second will be for China to stay nimble as surprises come up that require perhaps a far more complex balancing of economic, political, and environmental goals in reaching the country’s long-term goals.

What there currently is no question of is China’s seriousness to manage its environmental fate as deliberately as possible. Other countries, such as number two polluter the United States which has no such integrated plan and has an Executive Branch which is actively ignoring the impacts of climate change, should take careful note of what China is planning in this area.