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Lucy Best is a research associate in Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
At the Nineteenth Party Congress, Chinese president Xi Jinping proclaimed China a “torchbearer” in the fight against global climate change. Yet the data, and a series of policy shifts in China, suggest that his rhetoric could outpace the reality of China’s commitment. China’s carbon dioxide emissions have increased in each of the past two years. In addition, some improvements in megacity air pollution, initially hailed as miraculous, actually are attributable to factory relocation. Moreover, reductions in coal-fired power plants at home have been replaced by their export abroad. Perhaps most significantly, as the Chinese economy slows, there are signs that institutional measures to strengthen local environmental protection bureaus are being removed.
This rollback has been evidenced most recently in the Shanghai Municipal Bureau of Ecology and Environment’s decision to exempt a range of construction projects from undergoing environmental impact assessments. First implemented in 2003, China’s EIA law is a critical step in ensuring that new economic development does not harm people’s health and livelihoods. In addition to a report that construction units must produce using a licensed environmental firm, the EIA requires public hearings, thereby providing a rare venue for Chinese citizens and experts to share feedback and influence decisions that affect their lives. While the EIA law already reduces requirements for projects that anticipate minimal environmental effects, this move goes further to minimize regulation for large swaths of projects in China’s largest and most prosperous city. With Shanghai leading the charge, other cities are likely to follow suit.
The range of exempted projects is significant, making it all the more concerning that their environmental effects will go unquantified and unmonitored. These projects include manufacturing activities related to metal products, electric machinery, and computer equipment that involve “only assembly and testing procedures” and use preexisting building systems. The list also exempts road expansion and maintenance as well as gas pipelines. Furthermore, it states that operations to lay fiber optic cables no longer require an EIA. The issue is not just that these activities will harm the environment, but rather that their unquantified effects will leave policy planners ignorant of local environmental conditions.
This is not the first time China’s EIA has suffered a setback. The law was amended in 2016 to allow construction projects to obtain permits before an EIA had been conducted. This policy change predisposes the EIA to becoming a rubber stamp rather than a meaningful tool for environmental protection. China’s recent history provides ample lessons on the dangers of neglecting environmental impact assessments and curtailing transparency measures, such as a 2015 explosion at a Tianjin container storage facility, which killed one hundred and seventy people, and a 2019 explosion at a Jiangsu chemical plant, which left sixty four dead and six hundred injured.
Ultimately, local EIA exemptions like those in Shanghai, when coupled with a recent decision by the Ministry of Ecology and Environment to step back from the country’s most ambitious air pollution reduction targets, signal a disturbing trend: when the economy slows, the environment is the first to go. While other countries often make similar tradeoffs, the stakes for China—with one of the world’s most polluted and degraded environments—are particularly high. These measures move China off the path toward greater sustainability and improved public health. Moreover, for Xi Jinping, they raise broader questions about the depth of China’s commitment to improve environmental governance at home and his willingness to lead on environmental protection abroad.