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OPINION: The climate policy to Hope for under China’s new ecology ministry

August 27, 2018 by Emily Jackson

Hu Min, Innovative Green Development Program

(First published by CGTN)

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China is experiencing a massive restructuring and strengthening of policy integration among government agencies. A major reform that has been little noticed outside the climate policy community is the movement of the Department of Climate Change from the National Development Reform Commission (NDRC), the influential economic planning agency, to the new Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE).

The organizational reform plan released on August 13 lays out the MEE’s mandate, organizational structure and staffing details. The mandate on climate policy has three parts – to develop macro-level climate strategy, plans and policy; to jointly lead international climate change negotiations together with other relevant ministries and to implement and coordinate United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)-related affairs.

What are the implications of these changes in China’s future climate policy? Shall we expect more ambitious goals or the contrary? What specific policies and actions can we expect from the new MEE?

Seen in the context of China’s broader, multi-year effort to improve environmental management, the migration of climate policy authority into an increasingly comprehensive and robust environmental regulatory system, led by MEE, will likely strengthen China’s greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction efforts.

And specifically, there are certain things that we might expect – and hope for – if China is to create a truly effective climate policy strategic system (misgivings about the often-frustrating pace of these policy developments notwithstanding).

The new climate change policy mandate signals that China considers climate change to be a part of its long-term domestic environmental strategy and an important component of the ecological civilization vision that President Xi has been articulating.

At a national conference on environmental protection attended by six members of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, President Xi emphasized the importance of establishing a national climate change strategy. High-level pronouncements like this one are often an indication of formal policy coming down the line, and we are now seeing some early steps in this direction under the MEE.
Chinese people in Copenhagen portray the slogan “Save Our Planet: China’s Contribution” during the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in 2009./ VCG Photo.

Until recently, Chinese policymakers have tended to see climate change through the prism of development and international diplomacy, as opposed to thinking about it as an environmental concern. In international climate negotiations, China has emphasized that its carbon reduction responsibilities must be balanced against its developmental rights, a position reflected in the fact that the climate change department was part of the NDRC.

It was after the 2009 COP15 in Copenhagen that climate change and carbon mitigation became part of China’s political agenda.

Since then one of the shortcomings of the nation’s climate policy has been that it lacks a firm legal basis. Correcting this would fall in line with MEE’s mandate to develop macro-level climate strategy, plans, and policy.

The goals set in China’s 12th and 13th Five-Year Plans(2011-2020) – reducing carbon emissions per unit of GDP by 16 percent and 18 percent, respectively – are legally binding and undoubtedly powerful in the context of China’s political framework.

However, a law on climate change or a legal definition of Co2 as a pollutant would be a far stronger spur for policy action. Unfortunately, the proposal for a national climate change law suggested as early as 2009, has not yet made it onto the State Council’s legislative agenda.

The transfer of the climate portfolio from NDRC to MEE could change that. This handover could make carbon mitigation, which has often been a token of international negotiations, into a domestic environmental priority. There are three ways this could happen.

The first approach would be to give climate policy a firmer institutional foundation – to classify GHGs as pollutants that are legally subject to the environmental law. Climate policy could conceivably be integrated into China’s Environmental Protection Law, which will likely see revisions when MEE announces its work plan.

The second approach would be to redefine the term environment in the law to encompass climate, making dangerous climate change a direct target of China’s increasingly assertive, legally mandated environmental protection efforts.

The third approach would be for China’s legislature to finally create a standalone Climate Change Law.

At this early stage, the MEE is being structured around traditional environmental concerns – air pollution, water quality, waste management, nuclear safety, etc. Each of these areas is governed by a separate law that mandates a focused government response.

Given the idiosyncrasies of carbon emissions (e.g. their global nature, their tight coupling with the energetics of modern economic systems, the alarming prognosis that we’ve likely already locked into a higher than 2-degree path), it would be wise to have a law that drives China’s climate policy forward in a focused manner.

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