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China gains on environment

By Zhao Huanxin in Washington | China Daily | Updated: 2018-03-21 07:36

Cabinet reform signals determination to 'ramp up pollution control efforts'

China's unprecedented focus on environmental protection and its pledge to prevent foreign garbage from crossing its borders are industry game changers, according to two environmental observers in the United States.

In presenting the Government Work Report to the annual session of the National People's Congress, Premier Li Keqiang said the notion that "lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets" has been followed with resolute action and intensity as never before to strengthen environmental protection.

"We have struck out hard against air pollution, achieving a drop of over 30 percent in the average density of fine particulate matter in key areas," he said. "We will completely prohibit garbage from being brought into China."

Alex Wang, assistant professor at the School of Law of the University of California, Los Angeles, said, "The Chinese leadership's focus on environmental protection has never been higher."

China's latest Cabinet reshuffle during the NPC session also signals its determination to ramp up pollution control efforts, said Wang, a leading expert on environmental law.

"The reform to create a Ministry of Ecological Environment and a Ministry of Natural Resources with expanded regulatory powers seems intended to centralize environmental protection authority, reducing fragmentation and turf battles among disparate agencies," he said.

Moving forward, China is still going to face a difficult road in the fight against environmental degradation, adding that the leadership will do its best to draw from all the resources it has at its disposal-not just State authority, but also the power of citizens, civil society groups, media, innovative businesses and international partners, all of which are poised to contribute to the cause, he said.

In an effort to protect the environment and public health, China banned the import of 24 categories of solid waste-including plastic and paper-on Jan 1. The effort was given a shot in the arm by Premier Li, who vowed in his speech on March 5 to "completely prohibit" the garbage.

Jennifer Turner, director of the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson Center. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Jennifer Turner, director of the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, said China's decision to block many plastic recyclables is a global game changer, forcing cities in the US and Europe to figure out what to do with their huge mountains of plastics.

European Union regulators are searching for ways to recycle more plastic, as waste piles up in ports after China's foreign garbage import ban, according to Reuters.

Announcing a new policy push in January, European Commission Vice-President Jyrki Katainen said Brussels is mulling the imposition of a tax, curbs on throwaway items like plastic bags, quality standards and new rules at ports, among other restrictions.

"In the short term, a lot of cities will have to landfill these recyclables, since the US does not yet have a big enough demand for these recyclables in our manufacturing sector," Turner said. "It is possible that this could force bigger conversations about how our consumers should lessen their use of plastics, but as you know this will be a tough change for Western countries and China."

Turner said a big driver of China's ban is the expansion of the government's war on pollution.

China's landfills are bulging, illegal waste dumping is a growing headache and the favored solution among city governments-to incinerate-is creating health and pollution problems, she said.

In addition to dozens of cities being selected by the government to test mandatory garbage sorting, Turner said, it is good to see that many others have been voluntarily experimenting with sorting and recycling to address the public's growing concerns about incinerators.

She said there have been "some true victories" with respect to China's air pollution, but the country still faces major challenges in controlling emissions from vehicles, which are climbing higher even as emissions from coal burning drop.

The challenge of dealing with pollution in rural areas is huge, particularly poorer regions in western China, where a lot of the coal pollution problems have been shifted, she added.

“I know the ‘No 1 document’ this year focused on rural development and I hope it will mean greater efforts on rural pollution,” she said.

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