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New environment chief vows to throttle emissions

By Zhang Jianyu (China Daily) Updated: 2015-03-23 08:00

Being in the minister's job for exactly just one week, the new head of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, Chen Jining, showed that his overseas training and global perspectives will play a role in the country's fight against pollution at his first appearance during a news conference at the National People's Congress on March 8.

The title of the meeting - "Comprehensively Strengthening Environmental Protection" - says it all. In light of growing concerns over the environment, the ministry is not only charged with a new environmental mission to bring back the health of the nation's air, water and soil, but faces increasing challenges from the public now that the government is no longer the sole source of information that they have access to.

With an environmental engineering degree from Imperial College London and previously serving as the president of Tshinghua University, his alma mater, Chen has presented a candid view of the state of the environment and provided a persuasive vision that the government will take all the necessary steps to improve the environment to a satisfactory level. The highlights of his press conference are the various English acronyms and phrases that he cited to make his points.

He used "NIMBY: Not-in-my-backyard" to answer a question about how to mediate the conflict between the development of sensitive projects, such as paraxylene plants and public concern. NIMBYism has been a common phenomenon in other countries and serious lessons have been learned when related environmental and social concerns are not addressed.

Chen stressed the ministry's support for projects of key national interests, but emphasized the need for full disclosure of related information to the relevant sections of the public and the adoption of all necessary precautionary measures to minimize impact. NIMBY projects could serve as a good starting point for true and full environmental information disclosure, which have been identified as the bottleneck of bringing in real public participation and winning the support of the public on environmental enforcement.

He creatively used the "lock-in" effect, a term used in the climate arena to identify industrial countries' path-dependent fossil-fuel processes arising through technological, organizational, social and institutional co-evolution, to describe the potential impact from China's large population base if individuals indulge in environmentally irresponsible behavior such as littering. This is particularly important when the public is paying more attention to environmental damage rather than their own behavior, which is partly responsible for those environmental effects.

He cited "PPP: prevention, prevention, prevention" to address the issue of how to handle the migration of heavy polluting industries to the western regions and the resurgence of environmental disasters that have already occurred in the east. He declared the ministry's resolve to defend the ecological redline in those environmentally vulnerable areas, and also emphasized the priority establishing basic technological requirements to make sure only sound and efficient production processes are allowed to enter those areas. P2E2 - pollution prevention and energy efficiency - has been an environmental concept applied in the West to deal with new industrialization processes and facilitate green transformation, and can have wide application in Western development.

The "Kuznets curve" is another Western environmental economic concept that Chen used to illustrate his viewpoint on the scale of emissions levels that China needs to suffer from along the economic development process. He used it to demonstrate the challenges that China is facing: The current emissions intensity is about two to three times of those from the highest emitting countries in history, such as Germany and Japan, and also to assure the public that emissions will eventually come down. He used the Western theory to seek confidence from the public about environmental prospects in China, and also to ask for perseverance so everyone can unite to combat the problem.

There was also a light moment during the news conference when he categorically denied the notion that the nation's new environmental law is just "a piece of paper". He pointed out that the legally binding spirit of compliance is really the bottom line of enterprises' behavior and the precondition of all other environmental policies. More stringent enforcement actions on polluters and holding local governments and officials accountable are the solutions that he prescribed.

Though his ministry is not the lead agency on this issue in China, the new minister also impressed the audience with his profound knowledge about climate change, the top global environmental issue. He pointed out that the new phrase "in light of different national circumstances", which first appeared in the historical Sino-US climate announcement from November, has played a vital role in salvaging the ensuing Lima climate negotiations. His support and expectation of the upcoming Paris climate negotiations send signals both internationally and domestically that the Chinese government is very serious about climate change and will honor its commitments.

The author is managing director of the Environmental Defense Fund. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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