Drawing a Red Line for Ecological Protection

By: Li GanjieFrom:English Edition of Qiushi Journal Vol.6 No.3 July 1,2014 | Updated: 2014-Aug-14 16:54
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An autumn pasture in the Golog Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Qinghai Province (Photograph taken on September 2, 2013). The Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve, home to the headwaters of the Yangtze River, the Yellow River, and the Lancang River, is located 4,000 meters above sea level in the heart of the Tibetan Plateau. In 2005, the Chinese government allocated 7.5 billion yuan in funding for a project to protect ecosystems in the Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve. Since the project was launched, there has been a notable improvement in the region’s ecological environments. / Photo by Xinhua reporter Yang Shoude

The Decision of the CPC Central Committee on Major Issues Concerning Comprehensively Deepening Reform, which was adopted at the Third Plenary Session of the Eighteenth Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, clearly calls for the acceleration of efforts to place ecological progress on an institutional footing and protect ecological environments through institutional arrangements. The arrangements and requirements put forward in the Decision with regard to the drawing of a red line for ecological protection represent a major institutional innovation in the promotion of ecological progress. The ecological red line refers to spatial boundaries and administrative limits for the implementation of strict protection with regard to natural ecosystem services, environmental quality and security, and natural resource utilization. The purpose of the ecological red line is to safeguard our ecological security on a national and regional level, maintain the sustainable development of our economy and society, and guarantee the health of the public. The ecological red line represents another “lifeline” to be recognized at the national level following the 120 million hectare “red line” for the protection of farmland. 

I. The significance of drawing a red line for ecological protection

The drawing of a red line for ecological protection is an essential requirement for the safeguarding of China’s national ecological security. With the constantly intensifying exploitation of nature owing to social and economic activities, China’s natural ecosystems are being subjected to increasingly serious levels of incursion and damage, prompting a shift from structural damage to functional disorder. For example, over the past 20 years, the service capacity of the Gannan functional ecological zone for water source conservation has declined by around 30%; while the service capacity of the windbreak and sand fixation functional ecological zone in the lower reaches of the Heihe River has decreased by almost 40%. Only by drawing a red line for ecological protection, optimizing our country’s spatial layout for development, setting straight the relationship between protection and development, and improving ecosystem services in accordance with the principle of ecosystem integrity and the positioning of development priority zones will we be able to lay down a structurally complete and functionally stable layout for ecological security, one that will allow us to safeguard our ecological security on a national level.

The drawing of a red line for ecological protection is the key to constantly improving the quality of China’s environments. The demands and expectations of the public with regard to environmental quality are constantly rising as our economy and society continue to develop and people’s living standards become increasingly high. China’s serious environmental pollution is perhaps best demonstrated by the increasingly prominent problem of composite air pollution on a regional basis, the main constituent of which is fine particles (PM 2.5). Almost 600 million people have been affected by the protracted, widespread, and heavily polluted smog that has been seen in China’s central and eastern regions since the year 2013. The quality of China’s water environments leaves no room for optimism either. The problem of soil pollution, especially from heavy metals, is becoming increasingly prominent, and is posing a threat to food safety. Environmental pollution originating from the livestock and poultry industries is also highly prominent. Only by drawing and firmly enforcing a red line for ecological protection and building organic links between our efforts to control environmental pollution, improve the quality of environments, and prevent environmental risks will we be able to ensure that the quality of environments not only ceases to decline any further, but can actually be improved on a gradual basis, thus allowing the trend of ecological degradation to be reversed at the source.  

The drawing of a red line for ecological protection will help to boost the capacity of our economy and society for sustainable development. China’s reserves of arable land, forestland, and grassland per capita amount to 39%, 23%, and 46% of the respective world averages, while its per capita reserves of most mineral resources are less than half of the world average level. Research shows that the reasonable carrying capacity of China’s land resources is just 1.15 billion people, meaning that China’s population has already exceeded this carrying capacity by a margin of around 200 million. More than 600 counties in China have crossed the 0.053 hectare warning line for arable land per capita set by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Therefore, drawing a red line for ecological protection, prompting adjustments in the layout of our population and economy to suit the carrying capacity of our resources and environment, and promoting the intensive and economical use of various resources will be of great significance for bolstering the ecological foundation of China’s sustainable economic and social development.  

II. The meaning of a red line for ecological protection

The purpose of drawing a red line for ecological protection is to establish a stringent system for ecological protection and introduce more demanding regulatory requirements with regard to the safeguarding of ecological functions, the security and quality of environments, and the use of natural resources, so as to promote balance between people, resources, and environments and beneficial interactions between the economy, society, and ecosystems. The red line for ecological protection will embody the following characteristics: systematic completeness; mandatory restriction; synergistic interaction; dynamic balancing; and feasible implementation. Systematic completeness means that the drawing, observance, and regulation of the red line for ecological protection must be given overall consideration at the national level in order to ensure its orderly implementation. Mandatory restriction means that once the red line for ecological protection has been drawn, stringent administrative measures and environmental access provisions must be formulated. Synergistic interaction means that the red line for ecological protection must be coordinated with major regional development plans, suited to the needs of economic and social development and the current level of regulatory capacity, and tied closely to the current state of ecological protection and the current administrative system. Dynamic balancing means that appropriate adjustments may be made to the red line so as to achieve a more ideal balance of ecological protection and economic and social development, provided that the number of ecological spaces is not reduced, the protected nature of these spaces is not changed, their ecological functions are not degraded, and administrative requirements are not lowered. Feasible implementation means that the goals set for the red line must be attainable and that the accompanying administrative systems and policies must be implementable.  

Specifically, the red line for ecological protection may be divided into a baseline for the safeguarding of ecological functions, a minimum acceptable line for environmental quality and security, and an uppermost permissible line for the utilization of natural resources. 

The baseline for the safeguarding of ecological functions consists of an ecological red line for areas in which development activities are prohibited, an ecological red line for important ecological function zones, and an ecological red line for areas with sensitive and fragile ecological environments. In areas where the baseline is applied, we will prohibit industrial and urban development in order to provide effective protection for rare, endangered, and typical animal species, plant species, and ecosystems, thereby preserving the primary functions of China’s important ecosystems. The ecological red line for areas in which development activities are prohibited may be applied to nature reserves, forest parks, scenic areas, world cultural and natural heritage sites, and geological parks. All of China’s nature reserves should be placed under the administrative jurisdiction of the red line for ecological protection, and their spatial distribution and boundaries should be clearly identified. With regard to other types of areas in which development activities are prohibited, the inclusion of such areas under the administrative jurisdiction of the red line for ecological protection should be determined according to the importance of ecological protection in these areas and the outcome of appraisals regarding the importance of their ecological services. The ecological red line for important ecological function zones may cover the 50 important ecological function zones that are stipulated in the Layout of China’s Ecological Function Zones. These zones fall into 5 separate categories: water source conservancy, soil conservation, windbreaking and sand fixation, biological diversity protection, and flood water regulation and storage. By appraising the importance of ecological services, we will place those core areas with high levels of importance and low levels of human interference under the jurisdiction of the ecological red line for important ecological function zones. The ecological red line for areas with sensitive and fragile ecological environments may primarily apply to ecologically sensitive and fragile areas which demonstrate poor structural stability, which are comparatively sensitive to environmental changes, which are prone to degradation owing to external interference, and which are subject to frequent natural disasters. By classifying regional ecological environments on the basis of their sensitivity, we will place core areas with high levels of sensitivity and intense human interference under the jurisdiction of the ecological red line for areas with sensitive and fragile ecological environments. 

The minimum acceptable line for environmental quality and security is a safety line designed to ensure that the public can breathe fresh air, drink clean water, and eat safe food, and guarantee that the basic environmental quality needs for human survival can be satisfied. This red line can be broken down into a red line for acceptable environmental quality, a red line for the control of total pollutant discharge, and a red line for the management of environmental risks. The red line for acceptable environmental quality dictates that various environmental factors must satisfy the requirements of their environmental functional zone. Specifically, the quality of air environments, water environments, and soil environments will be required to conform to the relevant national standards. The red line for the control of total pollutant discharge dictates that all targets in emissions reduction must be met and that the overall discharge of pollutants must be effectively controlled and reduced. By the end of the Twelfth Five-Year Plan, the discharge of major pollutants such as chemical oxygen demand (COD), ammonia nitrogen, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxide will be cut by 8%, 10%, 8%, and 10% respectively compared to 2010 levels. The red line for the management of environmental risks dictates that we must establish a system for the appraisal of environmental and health risks, improve the measures we employ in the management of environmental risks, further develop mechanisms for the handling of environmental accidents and the compensation and restoration of environmental damage, and promote the whole-process management of environmental risks. 

The uppermost permissible line for the utilization of natural resources refers to a maximum limit in resource utilization that cannot be exceeded if we are to promote the economical use of resources and energy and guarantee the efficient use of energy, water, and land resources. The red line for the use of energy translates to a level of energy use under specific goals for economic and social development. It consists of the total amount of energy consumed, the breakdown of energy consumption, and energy consumption per unit GDP. The red line for the use of water resources translates to basic requirements for building a water saving society and safeguarding the security of water resources. It consists of the total amount of water used, as well as the efficiency of water usage. The red line for the use of land resources translates to land allocation requirements that must be met if we are to optimize our country’s spatial layout for development, promote the orderly use and protection of land resources, and ensure that natural resources such as arable land, forests, grasslands, and wetlands are effectively protected. 

III. Institutional guarantees of the red line for ecological protection

In working to guarantee that the red line for ecological protection is not crossed, the focus of our efforts must be placed on the development of institutions, systems, and mechanisms.  

We need to establish and develop a system regarding the property rights of natural resource assets and the control of their use. Once a clear framework of property rights has been identified, we need to scientifically determine the various functions of natural resources and ecological spaces. Through the establishment of a usage control system, we need to guarantee the reasonable use of natural resources and ecological spaces, ensure that the positioning of development priority zones and ecological function zones is adhered to closely, and properly balance the relationship between development and protection.  

We need to establish a balance sheet system for natural resource assets. We need to establish a framework of indices to count, measure, and verify resource assets and liabilities, take inventory of our country’s natural resources (including their scale, structure, distribution, and trends of change), and accurately grasp the balance, increment, and decrement of our natural resources, so as to provide a basic reference for the drawing of a red line for ecological protection and the introduction of performance appraisals in the future. 

We need to develop monitoring, early-warning, and prevention and control mechanisms for risks pertaining to ecosystems, resources, and environments. We need to establish a monitoring and early-warning system to accompany the red line for ecological protection; forecast the future trends of development and temporal and spatial distribution of key factors in territorial ecological security on the basis of the current state of territorial ecological security as well as dynamic analysis and appraisals; and gradually form an early-warning system for territorial ecological security that integrates monitoring, early-warning, decision making, and technological support into one, that is underpinned by a strong technological, human, and material guarantee, and that allows for the handling of emergency situations.

We need to improve environmental access mechanisms for industry based on the red line for ecological protection. We need to formulate differentiated environmental access standards in line with the aims and administrative requirements of different types of red line for ecological protection. We need to guide the rational and orderly exploitation of natural resources in line with the principle of restoring and conserving ecological functions. In addition, we need to strictly control the launch of new projects involving high-levels of energy consumption and pollution, and prevent rash and redundant development. 

We need to implement a compensation mechanism for regions subject to the red line for ecological protection. In working to gradually establish a compensation mechanism for regions subject to the red line for ecological protection, we need to clearly define compensation standards, sources of funding, as well as compensation channels and methods, and draw on this as a basis for the promotion of ecological protection in regions eligible for compensation. In addition, we also need to explore a diverse array of compensation models. Where the producers and beneficiaries of ecological products are clearly distinguishable, we need to establish ecological compensation mechanisms for the provision of compensation across regions in line with the principle that those who benefit from ecological products should provide compensation. 

We need to improve mechanisms for the trading of emissions rights. We need to fully implement the polluter pays principle, develop a system for the paid acquisition and use of emissions rights, and develop a market for the trading of emissions rights. We need to work faster to formulate systems and rules for the trading of emissions rights that accord to the laws of the market and that embody mechanisms for the pricing of factors of production. In doing so, we need to demonstrate the market-based allocation of environmental resources and achieve higher efficiency in the allocation of these resources. 

We need to establish evaluation and accountability mechanisms pertaining to the red line for ecological protection. We need to gradually establish a differentiated appraisal system regarding the red line for ecological protection and gradually incorporate the outcomes of these appraisals into the overall evaluations of leading Party and government officials at all levels. Where rash decisions are made in disregard of ecological environments, and where these decisions result in serious consequences, the persons responsible must be held to account.


(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No.2, 2014)

Author: Vice Minister of Environmental Protection of the People’s Republic of China