Reform of Environmental Governance in China Should Be Good News for Wildlife

Anyone who has worked in China will know that the bureaucracy can be stifling.  At a minimum it can lead to serious time delays to even the most straightforward tasks.  At its worst, it can prevent action altogether.  Part of the problem, on the environment at least, is that the responsibilities for various environmental issues have been fragmented across many different government departments.

One official remarked that it used to take 12 official stamps from different government authorities to enable a decision to be taken about policies related to pilot National Parks.  And often these multiple authorisations are handled in series, which can seem to take forever.

All that is set to change thanks to a sweeping reform of environmental governance that was proposed by the State Council (China’s Cabinet) and endorsed by the National People’s Congress (the country’s parliament) in March 2018.

Here are the key points you need to know:

  • On 17 March 2018, the National People’s Congress of China approved a State Council proposal to reorganise the way the environment is governed
  • Two new ‘super-ministries’ were created to consolidate the management of environmental issues – the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) and the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE)
  • The Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) will be the ‘owner’ of China’s natural resources; it will replace the Ministry of Land & Resources, State Oceanic Administration (SOA) and the national surveying and mapping bureau, and will gain authority over urban and township planning, as well as management of water, grasslands, forests, wetlands, and maritime resources;
  • The new Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) will take on responsibility for the old Ministry of Environmental Protection’s portfolio as well as climate change and greenhouse emissions policies, which were previously under the National Development and Reform Commission, and anti-pollution tasks, previously the responsibility of the ministries of land and of water resources.
  • The reforms also expand the remit of the State Forestry Administration by creating a State Administration for Forestry and Grassland (SAFG), reporting to the MNR. As well as taking on the responsibilities of the old State Forestry Administration, the SAFG will gain some responsibilities that belonged to six former government departments, including management work on nature reserves, scenic spots and geological parks
  • The main responsibilities of the new SAFG will be overseeing and managing the development and protection of forests, grasslands, wetlands, deserts and wildlife, as well as organizing ecological protection and restoration, afforestation and the management of national parks.
  • In the process of reform, some existing government departments, such as the State Oceanic Administration, will be disbanded, while others, such as the Ministry of Water Resources will see their mandate reduced

A major positive is that the management of all protected areas will now be in one organisation (State Administration for Forestry and Grassland) with monitoring and evaluation by the MNR.  This should help to streamline decision-making and reduce the risk of cross-departmental in-fighting.

The reorganisation is the fourth time in three decades that China’s environmental agency (currently the Ministry of Environmental Protection) will see its remit expanded in a new department, highlighting the growing priority of  the environment in Chinese policy-making.

The changes are seen as a step forward towards implementing the much-quoted concept of “ecological civilisation”; the 2015 Master Plan for ecological civilisation argued that “natural resources should be properly valued,” and “holistically managed”. It also stipulated that economic activities should not result in ecological burdens that exceed the capacity of the environment to manage.  Under the Master Plan, the institutional processes to deliver “ecological civilisation” were due to be in place by 2020 and it seems this reform puts the Chinese government on track.

From conversations here with officials and academics it appears that there is overwhelming support for the changes and an expectation it will lead to better, more enlightened and faster policymaking on the environment.  A good early test of the new arrangements will be the anticipated publication of the revised list of specially protected species under the Environment Protection Law.  Despite years of review, agreement has not yet been reached among the different responsible departments.  Now, any (former cross-departmental) disagreements should be much easier to resolve.  As always, the proof is in the pudding, so we’ll be watching closely to see how the new arrangements work in practice.


This summary was compiled from discussions with officials and academics, media articles and from resources provided by China Dialogue.


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