What did the Third Plenum do for the environment?

China's leaders may finally have recognised the need to start factoring environmental protection into economic planning, suggests Isabel Hilton

For those anxious to understand exactly where the environment sits in the list of concerns that China’s leaders discussed this week, the much-anticipated communiqué issued at the close of the Chinese Communist Party’s Third Plenum on Tuesday was a little sparse.  

For Xinhua, the official news agency,  the environment came low down in its key points: pride of place was given to the promise of a greater role for the market in China’s economy. It would have been startling if the environment had not figured in the text at all, in a year of dramatically worsening air pollution and mounting public frustration at the government’s apparent inability to halt China’s deforestation, maritime pollution, desertification and water and soil pollution.  

The language was vague, but the communiqué did repeat the government’s promise to build what it calls “ecological civilisation”, a top-level slogan that officials are still struggling to enact in real policy.  Details were scarce – as they tend to be in such statements – but President Xi Jinping talked of “establishing a complete system” of ecological civilisation, apparently a commitment that China’s state machine will factor environmental protection into its economic planning.  

He also promised to improve the management of natural resources and to establish red lines in ecological protection, along with stronger ecological compensation for pollution victims.  

How these and other promises shape up will emerge over the next several months. The meeting also agreed to build a stronger legal system, more transparency and to strengthen the capacity of Chinese citizens to supervise their government’s officials. Applied to environmental protection, these measures could certainly help: a new draft Environmental Protection Law to replace the 1989 version, that has been moving slowly through China’s parliament, for example, has been heavily criticised for restricting the rights of NGOs to take environmental cases to court and citizens face many hurdles in getting cases accepted by courts, let alone in winning them.

The environment could also benefit from President Xi’s commitment to a greater role for the market, as China’s pilot carbon trading schemes begin to work. It also plays a role in other issues that have headlined as government concerns, such as social “instability” and poverty; the government acknowledges that its economic plans could be derailed if they fail to reverse China’s environmental degradation.

To do that, China will have to put flesh on the Third Plenum’s vague promises, strengthening environmental protection legislation and integrating environmental security into China’s long-term strategies. Key points to watch for include cleaning up China’s notorious system of Environmental Impact Assessments, strengthening the Ministry of Environmental Protection and giving it authority over the provincial and local Environmental Protection Bureaux, empowering civil society, boosting open information and citizen participation, and building a robust, legally enforced system of fines for polluters.