Can China Fight Pollution?

As the United Nations Climate Change Conference opens in Durban this week, Panos Mourdoukoutas writes in Forbes that China lacks a realistic way of executing on its long-term climate policy:

To be fair, China has developed a comprehensive environmental policy similar to that of the world’s second producer of carbon dioxide, the US; and it was the host of last UN’s conference on climate change. The problem, however, is, that by contrast to the US where the polluters are private companies, in China, by and large the polluters are government companies—State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) and Town Village Enterprises (TVEs). This means that the government as owner and manager of these enterprises is part of the problem it is called to address.

SOEs and TVEs are further “units” rather than true enterprises. They provide employment for unionized workers and financial support for local schools and hospitals. This makes any government action against these corporations too costly for the communities they serve—and eventually non-enforceable.

Compounding the situation, the country’s one party system that places all three constitutional powers in the hands of the same group turns the government into both a regulator and a regulated. This unusual and conflicting role of the government makes it very unlikely for a polluter to be prosecuted in the first place, afforded a just and fair trial in the second, and sanctioned in the third place.

Mourdoukoutas’ skepticism comes in response to a statement yesterday by Vice-Premier Li Keqiang that China’s strategy of environmental protection is an urgent practical option. From China Daily:

Countries are rethinking and exploring future driving forces in economic growth amid the worsening economy, while promoting green economy has seen common consensus among countries, Li said.

Promoting energy conservation and environmental protection, as well as merging it into all sectors of society, is a strategic task, as well as a practical urgent option for China, he said.

Energy conservation and environmental protection will be a key “breakthrough point” for China’s economic transformation and is beneficial to forming new driving forces.

China published a white paper last week boasting of its progress in reducing carbon emissions, setting new targets, and calling out the developed world to pull its weight, and also hosted the China International Forum on Climate Change in Beijing earlier this month. See also recent CDT coverage of climate change and pollution in China, including official acknowledgement of heavy metal pollution in its farmland, a damning report into Apple’s environmental impact along its supply chain, and research suggesting that sulphur emissions from China’s coal-fuelled power stations have masked global warming.

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