The past several weeks have been very busy as I made a brief return trip to the U.S. and then brought my wife back to China with me for a ten-day visit.
On Sunday April 13 I participated in an Environmental Regulation Roundtable held at the School of Public Policy and Management at Tsinghua University. Professor Qi Ye from Tsinghua served as host for the meeting. Outgoing EPA General Counsel Roger Martella, Jr. gave a presentation on “Federalism, Permitting & Public Participation: Three Pillars of U.S. Environmental Law.” Wang Jinnan from the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning discussed “China’s Environmental Governance Reform.” He described the government reorganization that recently transformed China’s State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) into the new Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP). Xiaobo Lu, a professor of political science from Columbia University who is visiting at Tsinghua, expressed considerable skepticism about the reorganization. Noting that it was referred to as a “platform for further reform,” he argued that for now it is largely just a change of name. The new MEP is still trying to figure out its functions, personnel, and other issues without any underlying law that clearly answers these questions.
I served as the discussant for a presentation by EPA attorney Steve Wolfson on “Permitting and Trading in U.S. Environmental Law.” I argued that environmental law had followed a similar evolution in both China and the U.S., beginning with ad hoc efforts to relocate polluting industries away from populated areas to end-of-the-pipe pollution controls and then efforts to encourage the development of better technology and process changes to reduce the generation of pollution. I noted that environmental policy needed to be more integrated into energy, land use, tax, transportation, and housing policies that substantially affect environmental conditions, something that the Chinese government could do given its greater emphasis on planning.
Zhang Jianming from the South China Center for Environmental Supervision discussed his organization’s work as one of the first two pilot “regional centers” set up by SEPA. While SEPA subsequently expanded these centers to eight, their status remains somewhat unclear as they are not really regional offices, but organizations to which SEPA assigns matters on an ad hoc basis. Unfortunately I had to miss Wang Canfa’s presentation in the afternoon that discussed this issue in more detail because I had to accompany my wife to the airport for her return flight to the U.S. The general impression I received is that the MEP is moving to elevate these centers to the status of regional offices.
This week the Chinese government announced details of their plans to clean up the environment prior to the Olympics by temporarily shutting down construction activities that generate fugitive emissions and requiring other sources of air pollution to make substantial cutbacks. The Boao Forum for Asia featured an address by Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, who indicated that India will reveal its plans for addressing climate change this summer. While the China Daily hailed this as “India to Follow China’s Green Lead,” a Time magazine columnist deemed it far more significant that Chinese President Hu Jintao barely mentioned climate change in his address to the Boao Forum (see http://time-blog.com/china_blog/2008/04/president_hu_does_chinas_davos.html).
On Saturday night my wife and I had dinner with a young Chinese “news assistant” for a major U.S. newspaper. He has been involved in researching some important stories concerning environmental conditions in China. What was particularly interesting is that he reported that he is being berated by friends for working for the Western press, which is viewed by many Chinese as biased against China in light of its reports concerning the unrest in Tibet.