China’s notorious pollution problem is making headlines for a refreshingly positive reason. Landmark revisions were approved for its Environmental Protection Law.
China plans to introduce an absolute cap on CO2 emissions from 2016.
Climate change knows no national boundaries, as made clear by the recent news that Antarctic glaciers will inevitably collapse. It is a global crisis requiring global attention, cooperation, and legislation.
Unfortunately our battle against environmental degradation has not been marked historically by a spirit of partnership. Rather, governments point fingers at each others’ legislative efforts, criticizing approaches that seem lax or laws that fall short.
As the world’s largest economy, the United States is often central to these politicized quarrels. In 2009, President Obama’s announcement of the Copenhagen climate deal “included remarks that appeared pointed at China’s resistance to mechanisms for monitoring emissions reductions.”
The climate deal between five major nations “did not come easily,” President Obama said at the time. Negotiations were tense and rifts particularly deep between developed and developing countries.
Today, in the U.S., Obama cracks down on pollution from power plants, with considerable concern from Democrats in coal-producing states on the issue.
Still, there’s cause to celebrate China’s newly-approved changes to its Environmental Protection Law, which are not only China’s most significant in the past 25 years–they also mark an opportunity to alter how other nations view China.
Under the modified law, flagrant polluters will face consecutive daily fines, so their incentive to comply with environmental protection is greatly increased. Whistleblowers will have easier avenues by which to report wrongdoing, and this emphasis on public participation is a sea change in China’s formerly opaque policies.
That China is the world’s biggest carbon emitter deservedly attracts criticism. Our global mitigation of climate change hinges largely on China’s decreased use of coal, according to a recent study.
Plus, even the reinforced law is more symbolic than pragmatic, as Benjamin van Rooij and Alex Wang note in a prudent op-ed. It will not cut the close economic ties between local governments and polluters. Developing “environmental targets … is a step in the right direction, but it does not fully resolve the core conflict between environmental regulation and polluting industries.”
While the legislative changes aren’t flawless, it’s important not to lose sight of their value.
By issuing “a signal from the government that it is taking the issue seriously,” China’s legislature promises its citizens a better future and demonstrates to other nations that it’s up to the task of tackling pollution.
Though China may be taking baby steps toward a cleaner environment, forward movement is positive.
If other nations acknowledge China’s new legislation as admirable, perhaps the law can serve as a bridge for international cooperation on the escalating global environmental issues that impact us all.