By Paul Davies and Andrew Westgate

In reforming and updating its environmental laws, China has until recently been focusing on air pollution. Attention is now turning to addressing water and soil pollution as well. For example, the Chinese government is now considering more robust penalties for those responsible for water pollution, indicating that the government could ban the building of homes and schools in areas with contaminated soil.

China’s issues with air pollution are well-known, with some urban areas experiencing particulate pollution levels exceeding those found in forest fires. A new study from Nanjing University’s School of the Environment estimates that smog kills 1.1 million people a year and is responsible for a third of deaths in China. As a result, the Chinese government is increasingly open to innovative prevention strategies. A recent example is the Liuzhou Forest City — designed by Stefano Boeri, an Italian architect famed for his “Vertical Forest” plant-covered skyscrapers. The Liuzhou Forest City will house up to 30,000 residents and is due for completion by 2020. Built across 175 hectares along the Liu River in Liuzhou, the Liuzhou Forest City will feature one million plants and 40,000 trees of over 100 different species that are intended to absorb 10,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide and 57 tonnes of pollutants annually, producing 900 tonnes of oxygen in the process. In addition to reducing air pollution, it is predicted that the plant life should reduce average air temperatures, create a noise barrier, and provide a habitat for wildlife. A high-speed electric rail line with geothermal energy-powered air conditioning and solar panels for electricity will connect the new development to the city of Liuzhou.

Boeri hopes that this sustainable urban architecture model will be applied throughout China. In fact, there may already be a second forest city in the works in Shijiazhuang, Northern China — one of the most polluted cities in China’s industrial heartland. Vertical forest complexes are also already underway in Nanjing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen. Whether this innovative forest city concept is a practical answer to China’s air pollution crisis remains unclear, but the Chinese government clearly is paying closer attention to China’s water and soil pollution laws.

Various amendments have been proposed to the water pollution law. For example, maximum penalties for water pollution are to increase across the board, including penalties of up to CNY1 million ($146,000) for serious infractions such as falsifying water quality data. The current, highest possible water penalty is CNY200,000 ($29,000). Debra Tan, head of Hong Kong think tank China Water Risk, described the proposed amendments to the water pollution law as “broadly positive and moving in the right direction”.

The key provisions of the new soil pollution law are:

  • A ban on the building of residential units, schools, hospitals, or nursing homes in contaminated areas
  • Limiting where crops can be grown or livestock grazed
  • Setting up a system of contaminated lands
  • A classification system to flag contamination levels

These measures would address various public health issues, such as illnesses caused by buildings erected on contaminated land and rice grown in soil contaminated by health-damaging heavy metals such as, cadmium, lead, and arsenic.

Despite this positive shift, the timing of these new measures remains unclear, and the Chinese government has not yet provided definitive timelines for further action on the water pollution law. Similarly, the detailed soil pollution survey, required under a soil pollution action plan released last year, will not be finalised until 2020. Qiu Qiwen, an official from the department of soil and environmental management of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, asked for “patience” in the long process of dealing with soil pollution.

Although this increased focus on water and soil pollution is welcome, whether and when these new laws will bring about measurable changes to China’s pollution levels remains unclear.

This post was prepared with the assistance of Ei Nge Htut in the London office of Latham & Watkins.