Environmental assessments for key infrastructure to be expedited

The Ministry of Ecology and Environment is loosening an important requirement of China’s environmental impact assessment (EIA) system, it told the press on Tuesday 7 June.

So as to expedite critical infrastructure projects, developers are no longer required to secure emissions allowances as a precondition for EIA approval. The fast-track procedure applies to the construction of roads, railways, hydro, solar and wind power projects, as well as coal mining projects that support energy security. 

“Such infrastructure projects emit very small amounts of [regulated] pollutants and will have relatively little impacts on regional environmental quality if they strictly implement pollution prevention measures,” stated the ministry. 

The pollutants in question are conventional air pollutants like sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides as well as water pollutants such as those that may cause eutrophication. Carbon dioxide and methane are not regulated under the ministry’s emissions allowances regime. 

In 2014, the ministry had strengthened the emissions quota system by decreeing that project developers must obtain allowances for regulated pollutants before submitting their EIAs for approval. 

Despite this week’s change to the EIA rules, the allocation and total availability of allowances remain strictly controlled: they only become available when existing projects reduce their emissions. The system is meant to keep total pollution levels in a given region in check when new projects are developed.  

In late April, China’s top leadership injected new urgency into the building of a “modernised infrastructure system,” which was widely interpreted as a response to economic difficulties. Days after, the ministry quickly fell in line and announced that it would “better serve the needs of stabilising the economy” and “enhance EIA services to key infrastructure projects.”

In the 7 June communiqué, the ministry also stressed that despite the uncoupling of emissions allowances from EIA approval, the general quality of EIAs should not be sacrificed: “The bottom lines of environmental safeguards must be defended.”