The Chinese government has passed the first amendments to its environmental protection laws since their introduction 25 years ago, adding tougher penalties for polluters in the world’s most carbon-emitting nation.
The amended law, which comes into action on January 1 2015, “sets environmental protection as the country’s basic policy.”
It will allow the Chinese authorities to force consecutive daily fines on polluters, who may also be publicly named and shamed.
Channels will be set up for whistleblowers to reveal poor conduct and NGOs will also be given the power to take legal action against environmental damage, as citizens are encouraged to play a more active role in turning China’s unsustainable course around.
Xin Chunying, deputy director of the Legislative Affairs Commission of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, told journalists that the law would deliver “a blow […] to our country’s harsh environmental realities“.
The first revisions of China’s 1989 environmental law come in response to the public’s severe concern over the countries pollution crisis.
Air pollution levels in many parts of the country frequently exceed the levels considered dangerous for human health by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Many major cities are frequently choked by smog, caused by traffic and coal emissions, that forces citizens to stay indoors while causing respiratory diseases and reducing life expectancy. China’s former health minister Chen Zhu recently estimated that air pollution – the fourth biggest killer in Beijing – accounts for up to 500,000 premature deaths in China each year.
In recent weeks it has also been revealed that almost 60% of the country’s groundwater is polluted, while one-fifth of its arable land is contaminated by toxic inorganic pollutants, such as nickel, mercury, arsenic, and lead.
In each case, the blame lies with China’s breakneck economic and industrial expansion over past decades, as growth at all costs was favoured over the needs of the environment and the risks of pollution.
However, many observers say the new, tougher law demonstrates the Chinese government’s will to change and gives cause to be optimistic.
“On the whole, there are many bright spots,” said Ma Jun, head of the Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs, an independent environmental group.
“The biggest breakthrough is […] that [they] have used a professional document to talk about the disclosure of environmental information and public participation. This, in fact, establishes some of the public’s basic environmental rights.”
Photo: 大杨 via flickr