A New Path of Environmental Protection

From: English Edition of Qiushi Journal Updated: 2011-09-19 20:01
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    The three decades of China’s reform and opening up have seen great advances and many successes in environmental protection. During this time a number of models emerged in the effort to balance environmental protection and economic development. Overall, however, the period was marked both by efforts to strengthen environmental protection and by continuous environmental pollution. Some localities even repeatedly polluted and cleaned up the pollution, taking an exacting toll on the environment. The three decades of trial and error show that the overall nature of environmental protection work is a long-term, arduous task that must be carried out in stages. We must fully recognize the difficulty of solving China’s environmental problems and work to carve out a new path of environmental protection.   

    In the early 1970s when China was beginning the process of industrialization and the problem of environmental pollution was emerging in some areas, we began looking for a new path of environmental protection that would have Chinese characteristics. At the first national environmental protection conference held in 1973, a principle for environmental protection was defined that called for “overall planning, rational distribution, comprehensive utilization, conversion of negative factors into advantages, reliance on the masses, participation of all sectors of society, protection of the environment and prosperity for the people.” On this basis, we made environmental protection a basic state policy in the 1980s, and defined a three part policy of “prevention supplemented by clean up efforts, assignment of responsibility for clean up to the polluters and stronger environmental control measures.” We formulated rules and regulations on environmental impact assessment and fees to allow pollution discharge, and began to see benefits from environmental protection efforts. In the early 1990s we shifted the emphasis of environmental work from stressing pollution prevention and control to putting equal weight on pollution prevention and control and protection of the ecology, and from end treatment to addressing the problem from its source through the whole process by working to make production cleaner and promoting the development of a circular economy. In addition, we began working on overall improvement of the environment in river basins and changing the structure of local industry rather than simply working to solve localized environmental problems, and working to control pollution concentration as well as total pollution emission rather than only working to control concentration. We defined clean up projects in the key river and lake basin areas around three rivers (Huai, Hai and Liao rivers), three lakes (Tai, Dianchi and Chao lakes), two kinds of regions (sulfur dioxide control regions and acid rain control regions), one city (Beijing) and one sea (the Bohai Sea) and began mobilizing human, material and financial resources to address environmental pollution problems in these areas.  

    After the central government formulated the Eleventh Five-year Plan for National Economic and Social Development, the government plans to carry out three changes. Formerly, environmental protection took a back seat to economic growth but the government now is calling for equal attention to environmental protection and economic growth. Instead of allowing environmental protection efforts to lag behind efforts to promote economic development, equal attention would be given to both. Instead of employing mainly administrative means to carry out environmental protection work, the government would apply a full range of legal, economic, technical and necessary administrative means. In line with the need to accelerate efforts to realize these three historic changes, we have defined an approach for overall progress with breakthroughs in key areas, calling for addressing pollution problems at the level of the central government through overall arrangements, formulating environmental economic policies for the entire chain of reproduction activities and making plans to allow overburdened rivers, lakes and seas to rest and regenerate to achieve a good balance between environmental protection and economic development. For example, we have taken great strides in economic restructuring, closing down a large number of backward production facilities and highly polluting enterprises. Major breakthroughs have been made in developing the infrastructure for environmental protection with the total installed capacity of desulfurization facilities reaching 324 million kilowatts as of the third quarter of last year, over seven times the total capacity for the entire decade before 2005. We introduced a number of environmental protection policies related to pricing, trade, tax, credit and insurance. In addition, we considerably improved the country’s ability to monitor the environment by stepping up the country’s relatively low level of monitoring activities, updating backward instruments and equipment and improving basic monitoring ability.   

    Changes in the times and social progress have led to new and higher requirements for environmental protection. In working out a new path of environmental protection with Chinese characteristics, we must correctly balance short-term and long-term interests, tradition and innovation, prevention and treatment, and urban areas and rural areas. 

    First of all, follow a guiding ideology of working to accomplish three historic changes. To realize these changes, we must give a higher strategic priority to environmental protection, take environmental protection into consideration when planning, making arrangements for and carrying out economic and social development. We must give proper consideration to environmental protection in industrial, land and urban planning and improve economic and social development through planning for environmental protection. We must promote scientific and democratic policymaking, work hard to change concepts that are not suitable for or not in line with these historic changes and resolve the major problems hindering long-term environmental protection efforts. We must accelerate the pace of reform in key areas and links and strive to develop more vital, more efficient and more open institutions and mechanisms to bring about these historic changes.  

    Number of black-neck cranes, a first-class national protected bird, in Yamdrok Lake is on the increase thanks to stronger environmental protection efforts in the Tibetan Autonomous Region. /Photo by Pubuzhaxi, Xinhua reporter

    Second, we need to set up a master prevention and control system. We need to incorporate environmental protection ideas and requirements in economic and social development as an important line of defense in order to effectively prevent environmental pollution and reduce resource consumption and environmental damage since this is the key to the new path of environmental protection. We must follow the strategies of sustainable development and rejuvenation of the country through science and education, adhere to the new path of industrialization, work hard to build an energy-efficient and environmentally-friendly society and resolve environmental issues through strategy at the national level. We must continue to formulate environmental and economic policies that cover the whole process of reproduction and work to incorporate environmental protection in all links of production, circulation, distribution and consumption. We must ensure that the requirements for environmental protection are met in industry, agriculture, transportation and communications, architecture, and services, include environmental protection efforts in government organs, schools, scientific research institutes, communities, families and other social organizations, and set up an environmental protection system covering the whole process of economic and social development. We must make innovations in production concepts, continuously promote cleaner production, develop a circular economy, use bioengineering techniques to upgrade traditional industries and reduce environmental pollution starting at the source of production and continuing throughout the whole process. 

    Third, we need to develop a sound and efficient system for treating environmental pollution. First polluting and then cleaning it up is an inadequate way of dealing with pollution. The cost of this method is inevitably too high and the cost in other respects is also inevitably too great. Cleaning up after pollution occurs will reduce pollution to some extent, but cannot fundamentally solve the problem of putting prevention second, and may even cause us to miss strategic opportunities for environmental protection. In order to deal with pollution in a highly effective manner, we must first of all work to effectively prevent pollution, use methods that require the least investment for the greatest results and fundamentally lessen pressure on the environment. We must rely on advances in science and technology, make our own innovations, actively work to find ways of dealing with pollution that greatly rely on science and technology, require a low level of funding, and produce great benefits for the environment. We must take into consideration the current unbalanced development among regions and large gap in development between the cities and the countryside in China, carry out research to develop a wide variety of efficient and practical methods for dealing with environmental problems. We must make the environmental protection industry an important factor in expanding domestic demand, stimulate development of the environmental protection industry by strengthening environmental cleanup efforts and promote cleaner production by encouraging consumers to “buy green,” thus fostering new economic growth areas.  

    Fourth, we need to improve the system of policies, rules and regulations, standards and institutions related to environmental protection. The three pillars of efforts to improve environmental quality are a sound system of policies, rules and regulations, standards and institutions, comprehensive environmental protection infrastructure and a sound industrial structure. Confronted with ever worsening environmental problems in the 1960s and 1970s, developed countries adopted drastic environmental protection policy measures that yielded obvious results. In China, however, environmental protection work did not start until the initial period of industrialization and proceeded alongside industrialization and urbanization. That made it particularly important to formulate environmental protection policies, and rules and regulations, and standards that are in line with economic development. We must make a comprehensive analysis of the status of economic and social development, accurately identify development trends, safeguard advanced production capacity and shut down backward production facilities by adjusting and improving environmental protection policies, and rules and regulations, and standards as needed, so that environmental protection can really serve as an important beacon guiding development of advanced productive forces. We must accurately assess economic and environmental conditions and adopt environmental protection measures that fully meet the requirements of the various macroeconomic policies so that they not only promote sound and rapid economic development, but address difficulties affecting environmental protection efforts.  

    Fifth, we need to develop a comprehensive environmental management system. A review of the history of environmental protection in other countries shows that strengthening abilities of environmental protection agencies and environmental protection oversight and monitoring is an effective model for centralized management of pollution. China is now in a stage of development in which pressure on the environment is increasing. We must take full advantage of the superiority of the country’s socialist system to continuously improve the environmental management system through the participation of the entire society. We must set up a sound environmental protection responsibility and accountability system and truly hold local governments responsible for environmental quality. We must strengthen overall environmental management efforts, actively work to develop a macro-departmental environmental management system, and unite with and mobilize all forces in society to form an integrated environmental protection force. We must accelerate efforts to develop an advanced environmental monitoring and early warning system and a comprehensive oversight system for environmental law enforcement, increase the application of IT in environmental management, make greater efforts for the modernization in this field, and develop a scientific and efficient decision-making system. We must strengthen efforts to develop a management system for environmental protection organizations, encourage the establishment of community-level organizations, strengthen the basic abilities of local environmental protection agencies and develop a smooth and efficient decision-making and implementation system. 

Note: Zhou Shengxian is the Minister of Environmental Protection of the People's Republic of China

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