The Chinese National People’s Congress recently announced its long-awaited institutional restructuring plan. The new structure consolidates many environmental functions which were previously spread across ministries. In a nutshell, this is bound to be good news for the environment.
What has changed?
Some changes relevant to the environment are immediately obvious – climate change, ocean protection, water and groundwater protection, are merged into an environmental ministry with a much broader mandate, the Ministry of Ecological Environment (see graph above). Putting climate change together with the environment is perhaps the most significant change from an international perspective. It will hopefully become much easier to tackle issues which relate to both climate and environment.
Another interesting change is the consolidation of all ownership of natural assets into a new Ministry of Natural Resources (see graph below). The previous Ministry of Land Resources will merge with the State Oceanic Administration, and get spatial planning functions and all registration of resource utilization rights. This should strengthen protection of these natural resources, because it clarifies the ownership and will thus make it easier for this new Ministry to defend them and go to court if needed.
Finally, we will see the creation of a new Forestry and Grasslands Administration which will consolidate the management of all nature protected areas and national parks, which previously were also spread across a number of ministries. This new Administration will fall under the Ministry of Natural Resources.
Put together, the newly created entities constitute the unified ownership, management, and supervision of natural resources. These changes were clearly alluded to in previous announcements and plans (such as the Deep Reform Plan for Ecological Civilization in 2016, and the 19th Party Congress in 2017). However, until today we didn’t know what these changes would look like in practice.
Costs and Benefits
Such ministerial restructuring will always bring both costs and benefits. The benefits are pretty clear. We should expect implementation and enforcement of environmental laws and regulations to improve.
Previously some environmental issues were completely scattered across ministries. In a single piece of land, you might have the trees managed by one department, the shrub and grass by another, the groundwater by another, the land rights by another, and mineral rights by yet another department. The new structure should in principle unify the ownership, management, and supervision of natural resources, which should help to overcome many of the problems associated with the previous set up. In some ways, the new model can be compared with the USA, where the Department of Interior is responsible for the ownership of natural resources, and the USEPA is responsible for environmental supervision.
In the case of climate change, the move away from NDRC may present some difficulties because energy (including both fossil fuel-based and renewable energy) continues to be managed by NDRC. In China, the vast majority of carbon emissions come from the power sector and heavy industry, and it remains to be seen if the new Ministry of Ecology and Environment is able to effectively drive emission reductions from these sectors. On the other hand, the Ministry of Environment typically employs law-based approaches, whereas the NDRC is more used to command and control. Hopefully we’ll see a more law-based approach to China’s climate efforts develop in the coming years.
Interestingly, the Ministry of Water Resources will continue to exist, although a number of its core functions will be moved into the new Ministries. The survival of this ministry probably reflects the great importance that the Chinese government has always attached to water resources. Previous dynasties came to an end as the result of water crises such as flooding or droughts, and the Ministry of Water Resources was one of the first to be established following the establishment of modern China in 1949.
A new International Development Programme will be established directly under the State Council. This reflects the great attention China is paying to the Belt and Road Initiative, and the positioning of China as a responsible new global player. It is probably good news for the global environment. For example, whereas previously it wasn’t clear who was responsible for mitigating potential negative environmental impacts from China’s infrastructure investments in other developing countries, this is surely something that this new programme should take into account.
Environmental law making may also change a bit. The current State Council Legislative Affairs Office will be merged into the Ministry of Justice, so most new legal proposals will in the future have to go through them.
It will be interesting to see how closely the new Forestry and Grasslands Administration will be linked to the Ministry of Natural Resources. For example, the current Administrator of the Nuclear Safety Administration is also vice-Minister of Environmental Protection. Such dual titles can help to cement the institutional links, but we still tend to treat these administrations as rather separate entities from the affiliated ministry.
There are still many questions which should be answered in the coming weeks and months. For example, the names of the leaders of the new ministries have yet to be announced. Also, the detailed scope of the new ministries and functions still needs to be further defined. The new ministries and administrations are expected to be operational by the end of June this year. In the meantime, the reshuffling will probably cause a slow-down in decision making in the affected departments. Hopefully the new ministries will really get up to speed in the summer.
Dimitri de Boer is Chief Representative for China of ClientEarth, Europe’s premier non-profit environmental law group.