As China's smog war rages, Beijing rearms environmental watchdog

The Beijing city skyline is seen amid smog, ahead of Chinese Lunar New Year, on Feb 13, 2018.
The Beijing city skyline is seen amid smog, ahead of Chinese Lunar New Year, on Feb 13, 2018.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - China is creating a stronger environmental watchdog as it aims to cap world-leading carbon dioxide emissions and clear smoggy skies.

The newly created Ministry of Ecology & Environment will be tasked with cutting emissions and leading the nation's fight against climate change, responsibilities held previously by the powerful National Development & Reform Commission, according to a proposal released on Tuesday (March 13) during the National People's Congress.

President Xi Jinping has vowed to punish polluters "with an iron hand" and Premier Li Keqiang said last week at the opening of the annual legislative meeting that the country's priorities included "defending the blue sky".

The environmental reboot is one part of a sweeping regulatory overhaul that includes merging financial regulators, revamping the tax department and creating an office that oversees Mr Xi's "Belt and Road" foreign investment initiative.

"The most interesting move, and the one that bears the biggest international implication, is the merger of NDRC's climate change department into the new Ministry of Ecology & Environment," said Mr Li Shuo, a senior policy adviser at Greenpeace East Asia. "This is in line with the idea of consolidating power in one ministry for a stronger and better coordinated environmental agenda."

While there have been signs of improvement, China is fighting a long war against pollution. On the same day as the new reforms were being announced in Beijing, the city said its air was heavily polluted and has issued an orange alert, the second-highest level, until Wednesday.

China is aiming to cap its carbon dioxide emissions by around 2030. It will raise spending to curb pollution by 19 per cent to 40.5 billion yuan (S$8.41 billion) this year and aims to cut sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions by 3 per cent, according to Mr Li's work report last week.

According to the State Council on Tuesday, the new environment ministry's new roles will be to:

- Integrate scattered ecological protection responsibilities.

- Unify supervision and administrative law enforcement responsibilities.

- Strengthen pollution controls and secure ecological safety.

- Supervise and prevent groundwater pollution, previously under the Ministry of Land & Resources.

- Supervise development and protection of natural resources.

- Take on urban and rural planning, as well water, grassland and forestry rights management from related ministries.

"It seems that a lot of capabilities were carved from the NDRC" for the new ministries, said Ms Sophie Lu, a Beijing-based analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance. "It will be interesting to see if the NDRC becomes less influential in the future, as it has easily become the most influential ministerial-level department under the State Council since 2008."

The country also created a Ministry of Natural Resources, which combines the Ministry of Land & Resources, State Oceanic Administration and National Administration of Surveying, Mapping & Geoinformation with some area planning responsibilities of the National Development & Reform Commission.