Clearing the Air on China's New Environmental Protection Law

On 24 April 2014, the 8th meeting of the Standing Committee of the 12th National People's Congress of the People's Republic of China ("PRC" or "China") adopted the People's Republic of China Environmental Protection Law (the "EPL"). The EPL takes effect on 1 January 2015.

It has taken 25 years for the revised EPL to become law, which even by Chinese standards is an incredibly long gestation period; the most likely explanation for this is that this was due to the time taken for the political factions within the Chinese government to align themselves on the basic principles of environmental protection for modern-day China, recognising the huge changes in the nature of the issues faced due to China's phenomenal growth and development and the changes to the political and social environment in China since the previous version of the law was promulgated at the end of 1989. Given that progress getting to this point has been so long and laboured, it suggests that there was some difficulty in achieving broad consensus on whether China should prioritise economic growth and/or social stability over heavier penalties and strict enforcement of environmental protection laws and regulations.

In general, the EPL seems to be a move in the right direction and a positive development in terms of enhancing environmental protection in China. However the question remains as to whether there is the will to empower the Ministry of Environmental Protection ("MEP") and its local organs to enforce the EPL against a background where strict enforcement could lead to undesired consequences, such as mass-layoffs (e.g., by closing down the most polluting State-owned Enterprises). This would impact on achievement of other key political goals, such as "social harmony".

Given the large income and wealth disparities as between places and people in China, and China's broad and varied environmental problems, it will require a concerted, multi-faceted approach to address them adequately. In order for the EPL to make a real difference, it will need to be backed by clear and effective national and local measures on implementation and enforcement, not to mention the determination to ensure that enforcement risk becomes a real deterrent for would-be violators.

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