The announcement that China will establish a new “super-ministry” devoted to the environment was touted by state media as a sign of the government’s commitment to creating a greener China.
Upgrading the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) to cabinet-level status is intended to give the new ministry real influence in terms of establishing and enforcing environmental regulations.
But the plan was short on specifics and a SEPA official later revealed that the new ministry will lack some powers at the outset. Crucially, responsibility for grassroots anti-pollution agencies will lie with local authorities. This means that officials who may prioritize economic growth above all else will control budget and staffing for local environmental watchdogs.
Whether the new ministry will make a real difference in China’s environmental situation remains an open question. But SEPA, even without its elevated status, has already been a thorn in the side of China’s polluting corporations.
The watchdog said that it had forced the delay of 10 domestic share offerings last year due to the firms’ non-compliance with environmental rules. This is part of SEPA’s strategy of dragging polluters into line by attacking their bottom line.
Even if the new ministry becomes an all- powerful environmental champion, there is still much to be done. Xie Zhenhua, vice chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission said China faced a “daunting task” in meeting its environmental targets for 2010.
The plan is to cut air pollution by 10% and reduce the amount of energy used per unit of GDP by 20%. However, data suggests that air pollution has only dropped by around 3% in the last two years.