China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection’s increased authority over climate change and pollution control issues indicates a greater enforcement role for central government.

By Paul A. Davies and Andrew Westgate

The Chinese government has announced a major reorganization of China’s ministries that comprise the Chinese central government at a session of the 13th National People’s Congress in Beijing. The reorganization, which will reduce the number of ministries from 34 to 26, is intended to streamline and strengthen central government’s role in accordance with the principle of “comprehensively deepening reforms,” a key component of President Xi Jinping’s political program.

The Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) will be reconstituted as the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) as part of the reorganization. The MEE’s authority will expand to consolidate pollution-related responsibilities currently allocated among several other ministries, as well as assuming responsibility for climate change policy from the National Development and Reform Commission, a powerful economic planning agency which developed the national emissions trading system launched in late 2017. Specifically, MEE will expand its authority with respect to supervision and prevention of groundwater pollution, wastewater emission control, protection of rivers, non-point source agricultural runoff, protection of oceanic environments, environmental oversight for China’s massive South-North Water Transfer Project, and responsibility for climate change and emissions reduction policies.

Consolidating responsibility for supervision and enforcement of pollution issues may allow the MEE to implement China’s growing body of environmental laws with greater efficiency and consistency across the nation, which has proved consistently challenging for MEP. For example, oversight of water resources is currently split between MEP (surface water), the Ministry of Land and Resources (groundwater pollution), the Ministry of Water Resources (rivers) and the State Oceanic Administration (marine environments). MEE will also have the standing to sue polluters which damage oceanic environment under the Marine Environmental Protection Law. Locating climate change policy in MEE’s portfolio will also help ensure that compliance with China’s emissions trading system is enforced with the same vigor as other forms of pollution control, which will be essential to meeting China’s ambitious greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets.

Latham will continue to monitor and report on the MEE’s next steps.

This post was prepared with the assistance of Olivia Featherstone in the London office of Latham & Watkins and Zhuoshi Liu of the Environmental Law Institute in Washington, D.C.