What China can learn from France

Last year France enshrined environmental laws in its constitution for the first time. This was an unprecendented move, writes Liu Jianqiang, and may contain important lessons for China.

Green GDP”, the concept much vaunted by China’s State Environmental Protection Administration as a way to curb the environmental damage caused by economic growth, recently suffered its final setback. In the end, most of China’s government organs were happier to continue using the traditional measure of gross domestic product, despite its role in exacerbating the country’s current environmental crisis.

There is no other country where the environment is such a terrible state, and where a solution is so urgently needed, yet China treats its environment in a more negligent fashion than any other nation. Do Chinese people just not care about their health? 

Perhaps I am unfair: there are, after all, examples of the central government demonstrating its great concern for the environment. We have seen the government’s “scientific concept of development”, and the compulsory goals on energy efficiency and emissions reduction that were included in the eleventh Five Year Plan; all of which were unprecedented steps forward. 

However, there is also the bad news. A toxic leak in northeast China’s Songhua River in 2005 left a city of millions in panic over their drinking water. And pollution in southwest China’s Taihu Lake had a similar result this year. No officials have been held to account for these incidents, sending out an unfortunate message: just make sure the economy is doing well, and your promotion as an official is assured. Naturally, officials continue to value economic growth far above the environment.

As a result, all of China’s major rivers are polluted, our coastal waters and groundwater too. And there are many more examples of the problem: 

•Beijing forced half of its cars off the road in August to deal with severe air pollution, but the car industry is flourishing, with buyers flocking to dealerships. The number of cars on Beijing’s roads is increasing by 1,000 every day.

•Legislation is needed to stop environmental damage, but environmental laws are still very weak. 

•China’s environment authorities need the power to deal with polluters, but remain weaker than other government departments.

•Local environment authorities should have power over local government, but the reverse is true. 

One of the major causes of pollution is a warped view of political performance. This could be righted if traditional measures of GDP are replaced with an environmental perspective that takes ecological damage into account. This might give a clearer and more representative view of the success of economic development. However, it has been rejected by any.

It seems like all the roads ahead are blocked. We are working at cross-purposes, our left hand holding back the right. To free ourselves from this plight, perhaps we need to take a look at France. 

French lessons

France has a great deal of experience of environmental protection, but China should start by looking at the country’s legal and administrative example. 

In March 2006, Jacques Chirac, France’s president at the time, championed an amendment to the country’s constitution, which included an environmental charter. Besides its legal consequences, this also had a political and symbolic meaning. Chirac believed the charter would lead to “a revolution in the real sense of the word . . . of humanist environmentalism.”

This elevated the legal status of environmental issues to their highest possible level, alongside the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. 

The environmental charter enshrined in the constitution the concept of common heritage, the human right to a healthy environment and the public’s rights and duties regarding sustainable development. An official who helped who helped draft the charter was quoted as saying that acknowledging environmental rights and making them a freedom and fundamental principle would prevent the implementation of any measures which contradict sustainable development. 

The significance of the charter is that no other law may contradict it. By contrast, China’s environmental laws are numerous and of little use. There are no consequences for companies or local governments that ignore them, which they continue to do. Enshrining the principles of environmental protection and sustainable development in the Chinese consitution would give them unprecedented legal status as well as symbolic power.  

But it does not stop at legal protection; administrative powers are also used to protect France’s environment. I visited the French Ministry of Ecology and the Environment at the end of May and found it in a state of productive chaos. Nicolas Sarkozy, the incoming president, was overseeing the expansion of the department, renaming it the Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development. Its workforce was expanded from 800 to 5,000, not counting regional offices. And with the new employees came new jobs, covering energy, transportation, tourism and oceans. This means that the two most polluting sectors, energy and transportation, are now the responsibility of France’s new ministry. The country has avoided the problem of environmental authorities being unable to exert power over industry.

France was the first country to establish an environmental ministry, but its importance has increased over the years. I spoke to French environmental lawyer and former environment minister Corinne Lepage. The title of her book, Nothing can be done, Madam Minister, reflects the problems of her job; limited powers meant she was impeded at every step. 

Commenting on the power of the new ministry, Lepage said that she had always hoped to see an expansion of that kind. The changes mean the ministry now has increased importance, but she could not say how the different aspects of its work would be balanced in the new organisation.

What does this mean for China? Well, some claimed that green GDP was unprecedented and was therefore impractical. However, there is a precedent for prioritising environmental law and environmental administration, and it is a precedent that can solve China’s environmental issues. So, can China learn from France?


Liu Jianqiang, born in 1969, is a Beijing-based investigative journalist. He has a long-standing interest in environmental issues.

Homepage photo by Hughes Leglise-Bataille via Flickr