China has moved to strengthen the role of its environmental watchdog as it continues its uphill battle to tackle widespread ecological degradation and pollution.
The move to set up a new ministry of ecological environment – a decade after the first full environmental ministry was established – was hailed by state media as a significant step to boost the power of the largely rubber-stamp watchdog and cut regulatory overlap after President Xi Jinping identified the battle against pollution as one of his priorities.
But environmentalists and former government officials were not impressed and sounded a note of caution about the actual impact of this kind of bureaucratic shake-up without measures to tackle the deeply entrenched structural problems that stand in the way of meaningful reform.
The new watchdog, announced as part of Tuesday’s wide-reaching government overhaul, will absorb most of the functions of the existing environmental ministry and will also take on a variety of pollution monitoring and reduction roles that were previously carried out by other government bodies such as the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) as well as the ministries of water resources, agriculture and land and resources.
The new ministry will continue the task of mapping out environmental policies and fighting air and water pollution.
It will also be responsible for tackling maritime pollution, a task formerly carried out by the State Oceanic Administration.
The ministry will also have responsibility for the task of combating global warming, which will include international climate negotiations.
A ministry to manage China’s natural resources will be also be created, replacing the land and resources ministry.
The ministry of natural resources will also incorporate a large number of the planning and surveying functions formerly carried out by the NDRC and the ministries of agriculture, water resources and housing and urban-rural development.
It is also expected to oversee both the maritime watchdog and the forestry administration, with a remit that has been expanded to cover World Heritage Sites, natural reserves and national parks.
However, the plan fell short of establishing an all-powerful energy ministry to oversee the country’s vast coal, oil and power sectors despite intense speculation this would be the case.
The shake-up is expected to be approved by the National People’s Congress, the country’s parliament, on Saturday.
The latest reforms mark the sixth attempt to revamp the role of the environmental watchdog since the early 1980s, according to state media.
The changes reflect a sea change in public attitudes towards pollution control, a major source of public dissatisfaction and social unrest over the past four decades.
Despite unprecedented importance Beijing has attached to tackle the ecological problems that were a by-product of a its breakneck economic development, senior watchdog officials admitted on the sidelines of the NPC that they have yet to reach a turning point.
Although Beijing saw an unusual number of clear sky days last year largely due to strong wind and lengthy bans on industrial production in neighbouring areas, the capital has been shrouded in a dense, choking haze for more than a week.
Wang Yongchen, a Beijing-based environmentalist, said that while strengthening the environmental watchdog was a move in the right direction, it remained to be seen if the measures would succeed without a detailed implementation plan.
“The move is aimed at reducing red-tape and bureaucratic overlaps and wrangling, but it is too early to tell if the new bodies can overcome internal barriers and function properly considering the deep-rooted vested interests that exist,” she said.
A senior environmental ministry official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, also admitted that the latest shake-up may not be enough to tackle persistent structural problems without long-stalled political reforms.
“There is no such thing as a free lunch,” he said. “If we are serious about tackling the pollution problems that resulted from decades of growth, are we ready to pay a steep price to improve the environment at the expense of our economic development?”