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China's environment ministry launches anti-graft reforms

China's new environment minister says reforms will aim at preventing officials from issuing permits to polluters based on corrupt environmental impact assessments

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(Image by Lin Ke / Greenpeace) 

China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) will lose much of its power to carry out impact assessments following accusations that government officials have allowed highly-polluting facilities to operate in return for cash.  

Third-party companies in the private sector are now likely to conduct environmental impact assessments (EIAs), reports that are supposed to provide detailed appraisals of the likely environmental consequences of constructing projects such as factories or dams.

The move was announced at annual meetings of senior members of China’s Communist Party, where tackling corruption and curbing pollution are high on the agenda and a new environment minister Chen Jining is attempting to improve the tarnished image of his department.
 
Chen said the ministry would speed up reform of how environmental impact assessments are carried out in a bid to prevent officials from enriching themselves through the environmental impact assessment process. 
 
 
Cheng Lifeng, an official with the ministry, said 159 agencies and 169 engineers had been disciplined over the past two years, according to a report by state-owned news agency Xinhua.
 
"Any violation will be severely punished," Cheng told media.
 
In February government watchdog the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) detailed how officials from six provinces took advantage of their positions to award permits in return for cash or other favours.
 
In one case, Li Qiumin, a former official with Henan Provincial Environmental Protection Department, gave a pollutant discharging permit to a factory which failed to meet requirements and overlooked the consequences, China Daily reported last month
 
The investigation recommended that the ministry better monitor and punish breaches of the assessment process, separate itself from EIA agencies and standardise the market for assessment services.
 
The CCDI last month also urged punishment for ministry officials or their  family members that have intervened in the EIA process or have starting companies that offer assessment services.
 
“Eight EIA bodies subordinate to the MEP will this year be separated (from) other bodies subordinate to local environmental authorities will be removed. Those that are not removed will no longer be able to carry out environmental impact assessments,” the MEP said at the weekend.
 
Chen specifically refered to cases where government officials impose various conditions, or licensing and qualification requirements in order to profit from the right to issue approvals.
 
The EIA process has long been a source of controversy in China, as some analysts say the punishments are too weak for companies that fail to submit an EIA before the contruction of a project. 
 

Reform should go further, say commentators

Jin Jiaman, executive director of the Global Environment Institute, told chinadialogue that the revamp was a positive move, but a more fundamental reform is needed.
 
In order to prevent agencies cashing in by issuing an environmental impact report, the state needs to establishing a non-profit, third-party panel of experts who would carry out the assessments, Jin added.
 
Money would pass from the regulators and businesses to the third-party body, rather than directly from businesses to the agency carrying out the assessment, he said. 
 
The inspection group has highlighted the problems that can arise when government bodies and businesses have shared interests, and that trusted private sector verification companies need to have exclusive responsibility for EIA work, said Zhou Ke, a professor at Renmin University’s School of Law. 
 
Using reputatable companies to carry out this work will be particularly important given the poor reputation of companies that have carried out EIAs. 
 
An investigation carried out last year showed that many engineers employed to carry out work on EIAs had false qualifications. 

 

 

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