For 25 years, we have had growing air pollution as China expanded industrially and economically, condemning people to wearing masks and suffering respiratory problems. In new legislation, the first since 1990, there seems to be a window of opportunity to force prosecutors to act against companies, local authorities or any other polluters. If the necessary action is taken, currently by Greenpeace, several individuals and many groups of people who have environmental interests, the legal system could be overburdened by a great series of assessments, detentions and fines.
Since January 1st, when rules laid down last April took effect, there have been no limits to fines on polluting companies or to
loss of face by officials who may be demoted or sacked if they fail to report pollution events. The single environmental lawsuit instigated last year has been increased six-fold since January. It is not only the air. Much of the Chinese groundwater is suffering from contamination, from benzene traces in Lanzhou to leaking factories nationwide. Illegal dumping of chemicals from arsenic to mercury is rife while deforestation, throughout the country, from tropical rainforest to northern coniferous woodlands has devastated natural habitat.
It is now more efficient to deal with many such problems, rather than ignore pollution problems by paying the small fines. The costs have now risen, perhaps encouraging companies to employ more consultants to avoid them. After the agreement with President Obama, where China was to equal the US in curbing carbon emissions, leaders such as Chen Lijing (environment minister) has been heard to say, fittingly, that ,
this new law cannot become a paper tiger. The hope is that it will not suffer the same fate as the tiger in China. In recent years, some groups there have actually been saving tiger lives .700 independent groups can been registered with the government to file lawsuits on environmental problems according to the government’s own All-China Environment Federation.
This is a huge encouragement to other grass roots organisations or volunteer groups, as long as they, too can become registered after several years of public interest activities. The Supreme Court of China can now hear high-profile cases, also overseeing other tribunals as part of its remit. In a state-controlled economy, this means that China can be basically prosecuting itself. However, both Greenpeace in China and The Friends of Nature organisation agree that officials are now listening to many reports, from wastewater pollution to the awful smogs that western countries have been known to suffer too. Instead of losing face, now they can gain by joining the environmental side! The Guardian has a neat story on this, involving the UK shadow minister, Byrony Worthington and her meeting with Chinese mayors.