President Xi supersizes environmental agency

Source: Jean Chemnick, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, March 20, 2018

China has consolidated and strengthened its environmental regulatory bureaucracy in a “superagency,” a move environmentalists say will support its domestic greenhouse gas rules and help deliver China’s current commitment to the Paris climate accord.

The change came last week as part of an overhaul of China’s government aimed at elevating the priorities of President Xi Jinping, who recently became president for life. The government hopes to complete it this year.

Among Xi’s priorities is combating air pollution and climate change — two objectives that have been handled by different agencies in China until now, despite often being caused by the same sources.

Pollution to land and water was within the purview of myriad environmental ministries that had inspectors and enforcement personnel at their disposal to give their regulations teeth. But the National Development and Reform Commission, which has been in charge of China’s domestic response to climate change, had little at its disposal besides voluntary programs and rewards for good behavior.

“When the government tried to encourage more low-carbon behavior, it had limited tools besides high-level encouragement,” said Ranping Song, a World Resources Institute expert in Chinese energy. Federal climate programs have generally been voluntary.

“In the past, there were more carrots,” he said.

But carrots weren’t going to keep Chinese emitters in compliance with its carbon cap-and-trade scheme, which debuted in December to cover power plant emissions but which will eventually expand to include industrial emitters.

So environmental objectives, among them climate change, will now be housed at a new “superagency” called the Ministry of Ecological Environment, which has legal authority to ensure that rules, including the cap-and-trade program, carry consequences for noncompliance. “I think they’re in much better position to take it forward,” said Song.

The consolidation plan also seeks to clarify which agencies are responsible for which work. Last week, Chinese Vice Minister of Science and Technology Huang Wei told the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference that there has been “a general sense of accountability and ownership gap among government’s administration of agriculture, ocean, and water resources management” between the numerous agencies that manage urban and rural resources, with the result that objectives fell through the cracks.

There may be a learning curve, analysts said, because staff at the former air and water pollution agency weren’t involved in creating the cap-and-trade program.

“But it also, I think, is going to have a more powerful mandate than any environmental ministry in China has before,” said Jackson Ewing, a senior fellow with the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University.

He added that Xi’s objective in making the change was to signal again that China is entering a period of “cleaner, more balanced growth … not as solely focused on economic growth, but rather on some steady but important environmental advances as part of his mandate and part of what he wants his legacy to be.”

China is strengthening its environmental constraints as the United States under President Trump and his Cabinet relax regulations and as the U.S. president prepares to formally leave the Paris Agreement in 2020.

China promised more than two years ago in Paris that it would peak carbon emissions by 2030, and while it is widely expected to do so years earlier, tougher regulations might support that pledge. The world’s largest emitter also vowed a 60 to 65 percent improvement in the carbon intensity of its economy and to draw at least 20 percent of its energy from non-fossil sources by that year.

The environmental shakeup is only one aspect of a larger restructuring of the Chinese bureaucracy, which also saw the creation of a new body to oversee foreign investment efforts under Xi’s sweeping Belt and Road Initiative. The program of influence through investment has been compared to the Marshall Plan launched in the late 1940s to rebuild Western Europe. It comes at a time when the United States is scaling back its own soft power at the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

“I think it feeds into the narrative that if the United States is stepping back from global leadership, then China sees a space to move in, and one of those spaces is international development,” said Song.