China shake-up gives climate change responsibility to environment ministry

SHANGHAI (Reuters) - China will hand over a slew of new responsibilities for river, marine and soil pollution as well as climate change to a beefed-up environment ministry, it said on Tuesday, part of its biggest shake-up in years.

FILE PHOTO: A sanitation worker walks past a street amid heavy smog as shop owners set off firecrackers and fireworks to pray for good business, after Spring Festival holidays, in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, China February 23, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

The 10-year-old Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) will be transformed into the wider-reaching Ministry for Ecological Environment, and will absorb environmental duties formerly held by the land, water and agriculture ministries, China’s parliament said.

In a bid to take on polluters, China has been strengthening its environment ministry, drawing up new laws, setting up monitoring systems and launching campaigns to boost compliance by heavy industries.

“With the new management structure, the efforts for air, water, soil, and ecological protection will be more coordinated,” said Tonny Xie, director of the Secretariat for the Clean Air Alliance of China (CAAC).

“It is also a sign that China will continue the unprecedented commitment and investment to improve environmental quality in future, which will generate significant market potential for clean technologies.”

The enlarged body will also absorb functions from the State Oceanic Administration, and from the cabinet office in charge of a huge cross-country water project aimed at easing drought in the north by diverting rivers from the flood-prone south.

Climate change and low-carbon growth were previously the responsibility of the powerful state planner, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), and switching them to the new ministry could aid coordination, said Li Shuo, a senior climate adviser with environmental group Greenpeace.

“But much more detail, including who heads which department, is needed to tell if it is a net positive move,” he said, adding that the NDRC had been a champion of climate policy.

The NDRC’s climate role was partly a legacy of veteran climate change official Xie Zhenhua, who joined it in 2007 after resigning from what was then the State Environmental Protection Administration, in the wake of a toxic benzene leak in northeastern China.

“It is logical to transfer these duties,” said Shawn He, an environmental lawyer with a Beijing-based law firm, Huamao & Guigu.

“But the all-powerful NDRC was very effective at pushing forward climate policies because its powers are immense and it can play a role that no other ministry can play in terms of implementing its agenda.”

The switch comes as China struggles to meet pledges to launch a nationwide carbon trading system. Beijing was forced to scale back ambitions late last year amid technical problems.

“It will involve lots of trans-ministerial efforts and coordination, and I don’t know whether the new ministry will have the authority to do that,” said He.

Ultimately, the power of environmental regulators in China will depend on its leaders’ determination to battle the outcome of more than three decades of untrammeled economic growth.

“It is the Party that gets its act together on issues such as air pollution, and not the ministry,” said Li of Greenpeace, referring to the ruling Communist Party.

Reporting by David Stanway; Editing by Clarence Fernandez