Protecting the environment
S M Hali
China’s economic rise comes with a caveat. The Occident, which looks upon the swift development of China in awe, is also quick to highlight the challenges it poses to the environment. As early as October 1995, then US President Bill Clinton commented to then China President Jiang Zemin that the greatest threat China presented to US security was environmental, not military. Perhaps taking a cue from US criticism, the remaining western powers also started unjustly echoing the same sentiments. Consequently, China, which is an important world player, is fully cognisant of its continual growth in economic, demographic, industrial and military terms as well as the challenges to the environment. Subsequent Chinese governments have taken concrete steps towards addressing domestic environmental concerns as well as those arising from the global impact of climate change.
President Xi Jinping has displayed full awareness of China’s enormous environmental problems and has introduced impressive environmental laws and regulations, espousing a dedicated environmental bureaucracy extending from Beijing down through the provinces, cities and counties to the township level, ensuring that China participates actively in the global environmental community. During an inspection tour to southwest China’s Yunnan Province, President Xi stressed that China should protect its environment in the same way as one “values his own eyes”. He told provincial officials that environmental protection should be high on the country’s agenda. International environment watchers, who have been raising their concerns regarding the state of environmental challenges in China, should take solace in President Xi’s environmental policies and direction to his administration. President Xi has counselled Chinese officials on treating the environment in the same way as one treats his own life and that the country should look at the whole picture as it is in the long-term interests of all the people.
In the realm of environment protection, President Xi has offered four pieces of sound advice: his officials cannot afford to be pennywise and pound foolish nor catch one and lose another, adding that the Chinese people must endeavour not to live beyond their means or be more interested in the here and now, while ignoring China’s long-term interests.
New rules on the environment have taken effect in China from January 1, 2015. The changes are the first amendments to China’s environmental protection law in two decades. They are designed to give more power to environmental authorities and allow for harsher punishments against companies that produce harmful emissions. The amendments allow authorities to detain company bosses for 15 days if they fail to complete environmental impact assessments or ignore warnings to stop polluting. Previous limits on fines will also be lifted. The previous fines were considered to be so low that many companies found it cheaper to pay them rather than implement anti-pollution measures.
China’s development trajectory over the next few decades, more especially its endeavour for the fulfillment of the 40 to 45 carbon intensity reduction targets by 2020, is a welcome step for environment protection enthusiasts. The plan conditions both the medium and long term perspectives of economic restructuring, rebalance between inclusive economic growth and environmental objectives that are compounded by multiple constraints faced by China such as aging population, natural resources depletion, energy supply security and environmental deterioration.
It would be worthwhile to revisit the major energy and climate targets and actions specified in China’s 12th five-year-plan to gauge the nature and magnitude of challenges and difficulties with regards to the medium and long run economic and environmental policies. It merits highlighting that China should articulate sectorial policies with global climate mitigation targets to avoid long term carbon lock-in. Based on an in-depth analysis of the objectives in the plan, it is felt that the implementation should include mainstreaming developments of appropriate instruments to support cost-effective energy efficiency improvements and carbon intensity reduction in the next five years.
President Xi is unambiguous in the articulation of the requirement for creating awareness of the need to respect, protect and accommodate nature, follow the basic state policy of resource conservation and environmental protection, and give high priority to conserving resources, protecting the environment and promoting its natural restoration. He has urged the Chinese people to raise their ecological awareness, enhance relevant systems, safeguard ecological security and improve the environment. He has urged the people to preserve China’s geographical space and streamline their way of life in the interest of resource conservation and environmental protection.
The advice of the Chinese president carries weight on how the Chinese citizens as well as officials must strike a balance between economic growth and environmental protection, and bear in mind that protecting the environment equates to protecting productivity. President Xi’s solemn resolve to promote green, circular and low-carbon development and never again seek economic growth at the cost of the environment must be welcomed.