New trade arrangement incentivizes power operators to be more energy-efficient.

By Paul A. Davies, R. Andrew Westgate, Qingyi Pan, and Jacqueline J. Yap

On January 1, 2021, the long-awaited China Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) commenced operation, with 2,225 coal-fired power plants participating. Under this new ETS, China’s power operators will have to buy emissions permits if their coal plant exceeds carbon intensity benchmarks, giving power operators an incentive to improve efficiency. Since 2011, China has developed pilot emissions trading platforms in nine cities and provinces, paving the way for a national trading scheme that was first announced in 2017, along with an emissions trading market development plan for the power generation sector. After almost four years of development, the first annual compliance cycle officially began on January 1. China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) has published several policy documents on the national ETS that establish regulatory authority and specify general rules for key areas of market operation and design, including the Carbon Emissions Rights Trading Regulations (Trial), which was published in November 2020.

The Chinese Communist Party’s policy plans include an increased focus on climate change and a more open trade environment.

By Paul Davies, Ethan Prall and Andrew Westgate

The Central Committee, the top-level authority of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), recently concluded its Fifth Plenary Session and created China’s 14th Five Year Plan (the Plan). The Five Year Plan is the primary policy document for the CCP, covering a variety of social, economic, and foreign policy topics, and effectively serving as the CCP’s political platform. The Fifth Plenary was attended by 198 members of the Central Committee, including President Xi Jinping in his role as General Secretary of the Central Committee (his most important title). The full text of the new Plan is not yet public, but a communique summarizing the discussions at the Plenary has been released (Chinese version only). The communique indicates that the CCP will continue its focus on developing environmental governance policies through 2025, and the party will also prioritize aggressive climate policies aimed at reaching the 2060 carbon neutrality target recently announced by President Xi.

President Xi Jinping promises to reduce carbon emissions in speech before the UN General Assembly.

By Paul A. Davies, Michael D. Green, R. Andrew Westgate, and Jacqueline J. Yap

On 22 September 2020, during a speech before the UN General Assembly, President Xi Jinping announced China’s commitment to become carbon neutral by 2060 and reaffirmed China’s commitment under the Paris Agreement to peak its carbon emissions by 2030. China is the world’s largest greenhouse gas (GHG) polluter and emitted approximately 10 billion tons of carbon dioxide in 2018, according to the Global Carbon Project. Given this, China’s commitment to become carbon neutral by 2060 would significantly reduce global GHG emissions and set the stage for China’s development of a green economy.

China’s MEE is seeking comment on new chemical regulation framework, which includes a comprehensive environmental risk assessment.

Paul A. Davies, Ethan Prall, and R. Andrew Westgate

In January 2019, China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) issued a draft Regulation on Environmental Risk Assessment, and Control of Chemical Substances (the Chemical Substances Regulation or CSR) in conjunction with 20 other ministries and agencies, including the Supreme People’s Court, the National Development and Reform Commission, and the Ministry of Commerce. MEE is seeking comment on the draft regulation through February 20, 2019, which is available in Chinese only.

This draft regulation is significant because it represents China’s first comprehensive regulation of environmental risks from chemical substances, similar to the Toxic Substances Control Act in the United States or the Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemicals Regulation (REACH) in the European Union. In the past, China’s chemical regulations, such as Order 7 issued by the former Ministry of Environmental Protection (also known as China REACH), have been more narrowly focused on requiring the registration of “new chemical substances” and on the import and export of toxic chemicals. As discussed below, the draft CSR incorporates not only most of the existing chemical registration requirements under Order 7, but would also introduce additional requirements creating a broader new chemical regulation framework.

By Paul Davies and Andrew Westgate

Earlier this month, during a round of surprise inspections, Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Environmental Protection Zhao Yangmin publicly shamed the city officials of Langfang, a city in Hebei province, for failing to take action after a severe pollution warning was issued on April 2, 2017.  Deputy Minister Zhao also ordered a production halt at companies in Langfang which had failed to meet emissions control requirements or had submitted falsified emissions data, blaming “some local governments that do not take emergency response seriously.”

The inspection was part of a 28-city inspection campaign by the Ministry of Environmental Protection, the largest the Ministry has ever undertaken. The inspections involve 5,600 inspectors and will run through March of 2018, focusing on the provinces surrounding Beijing and Tianjin, where some of China’s worst air pollution is found.  Officials determined to be lax in their enforcement efforts could receive lower ratings in the personnel evaluation system used by the government; for serious offense, officials could be demoted, fired, or in some cases even subject to criminal charges.

By Paul Davies and Andrew Westgate

On 28 May, the State Council, China’s highest administrative body, released the Action Plan on Prevention and Control of Soil Pollution (currently available only in Chinese) to address one of the nation’s most difficult and pressing environmental issues.  This ambitious plan, developed in the wake of increasing consciousness of soil pollution issues, most visibly the students affected by contamination at a school in Jiangsu province this April, will require that 90 percent of contaminated farmland be made safe by 2020, and 95% by 2030.  According to some estimates, the cost of these efforts could reach $1 trillion.  In addition, the Action Plan calls for a detailed national survey of soil conditions to be completed by 2018, including identifying “hotspots” of severe pollution (a topic which was not included in previous reports), categorizing farmland by level of contamination.  The survey will be repeated every 10 years thereafter.  The Action Plan does not, however, provide details on the evaluation and selection of cleanup measures, or define standards for soil remediation or what constitutes a “hotspot.”  Finally, Article 7 of the Action Plan endorses the “polluter pays” (as well as the polluter’s successor) principle seen in the revised Environmental Protection Law and various notices and regulations issued by the Ministry of Environmental Protection over the last few years.

By Paul Davies and Andrew Westgate

On Sunday, China Central Television (CCTV), the country’s state-run broadcast network, aired a report claiming that nearly 500 students apparently developed illnesses (including leukemia) at a school built on contaminated land. Of the 2,451 students that attend Changzhou Foreign Languages School in Jiangsu Province, 493 (one in five) were diagnosed with diseases including dermatitis, bronchitis, white blood cell deficiencies, and in a few cases, lymphoma or leukemia. The school, which opened last year, is located one block from a plot that was home to three chemical plants which were relocated in 2010. An investigative report from the financial journal Caixin quoted a former employee of one of the companies stating that it had buried toxic waste at the site, and regularly dumped waste into a river that flows into the Yangtze. Samples taken in 2012 show concentrations of chlorobenzene (a component of herbicides) 94,799 times greater than national groundwater standards, in addition to contamination with other toxic chemicals and heavy metals.

The report has received considerable attention on the internet, with a “contaminated school” discussion thread on social media chat site Weibo attracting 30 million views and 76,000 comments within a day after the report aired on CCTV. Reports state that parents across the country are concerned that such incidents could happen anywhere in China. In response to the report, the Ministry of Environmental Protection stated that it “attached great importance to the matter” and the Changzhou city government stated that it has “zero tolerance” for pollution, and will be taking prompt action.

Though overshadowed for many years by air and water issues, soil pollution has attracted increasing focus in China, particularly following a separate Caixin investigation which revealed that rice grown in Hunan, China’s top rice-producing province, was contaminated with cadmium. In 2014, a government survey conducted between 2006 and 2011 was released showing that one fifth of China’s agricultural land is contaminated. Lan Hong, a professor at Renmin University’s School of Environment and Natural Resources observed that “China has entered its Love Canal era.”