Environmental Policy


in China


The central Chinese government publicly acknowledged the need for environmental protection at the same time it established its first SEZs.  One of China’s national strategic theories, “Scientific Outlook on Development,” represents a shift in China’s discourse from economic growth to include environmental protection (Matsuno, p.2).  The 1979 Environmental Protection Law established three policies referred to as the “Three Simultaneities System.”  The state established an environmental agency to oversee the laws.  In the1980s, the Environment Bureau was upgraded to the National Environmental Protection Agency, and in1998, the agency was upgraded again to become the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) (Matsuno, p.3).  Ten years later, SEPA was replaced by the Ministry of Environmental Protection of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).  The Ministry is directly below China’s central power, the State Council, and oversees the implementation and enforcement of all environmental laws and regulations.

China’s modern environmental policy may be summarized in three stages.  In the 1990s, the Hu Jintao administration created the first comprehensive environmental policy.  A group of policies known as the “Recycling-Based Economy” was added to Hu Jinto’s plan in 2004.  And the “resource-saving society” was added in 2005 (Matsuno, p.1).  However, the plethora of spewing smokestacks I’ve seen while driving from Beijing to Shanghai doesn’t reflect an image of environmental consciousness.

An analysis of indicators identified in China’s 10th Five-Year Plan (FYP) for National Economic and Social Development (2001-2005) has proven to be revealing.  According to a study by the Nomura Research Institute, China met all economic growth targets but failed to reach any of the 14 environmental targets for the period (Matsuno, p.6).  The author says that the policy has offered some control over pollutants, but the sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions remain serious.  Additionally, China’s carbon dioxide emissions have surpassed those of the United States. “China’s course of development could not spread to Africa, South Asia, and other impoverished regions without catastrophic environmental ramifications” (WorldWatch, p.8).

The concept of protecting “face” has influenced the central government to enforce environmental regulations.  During the Olympics in Beijing in 2008, China received bad press globally regarding the poor air quality that choked both athletes and spectators.  Factories were instructed to shut down for the duration of the games and the air quality dramatically improved.  I learned through informal interviews I conducted in China that this event directly led to the enforcement of environmental policy in several industrial areas.  A Shenzhen factory worker told me that the Ministry cracked down on the factories’ toxic waste emissions ameliorating water quality in the Pearl River Delta.  This action is a positive start but the cleanup of existing waste is slow to non-existent.  The biggest obstacle is the unwillingness to pay for cleaner industrial practices.  For example, retrofitted CO2 filters on smoke stacks would solve nearly 40% of air quality issues.  Scientists for the World Bank estimate that 40% of the pollution in China’s cities is related to industrial activity, 40% from power generation and 20% from transportation and residential buildings (Baeumler, loc 789). Yet no one has worked out a plan to pay for this quite simple fix.  Meanwhile, my eyes burned and my throat was sore from the smog in several cities I visited on China’s east coast.

China, an oligarchy, is capable of swiftly implementing new law.  Yet when we speak of the environment, Chinese leaders have made ambitious commitments supported by little action.  The current 12th FYP (2011-2015) includes a goal to cut carbon emissions by 35% (Farole, p.305).  Meeting this goal seems unlikely unless immediate drastic action is taken.  As mentioned earlier, the reluctance lies in the capital cost of environmentally mindful industrialization.  But this issue runs deeper into a political resentment that is shared by most LDCs.

The path to industrialization taken by the developed world is considered to include cost-cutting practices that are now known to be environmentally and socially harmful.  The early industrializers also continue to consume the bulk of the world’s resources.  Our aggregate demands for oil has resulted in both geopolitical instability and, as modern science has demonstrated, climate instability.  Developed nations have essentially maxed-out dependency upon fossil fuels, so future demands are rapidly emerging from developing economies, namely China and India.  It is in our best interest to provide modern solutions to industrialization for global security and the survival of our species.  To ignore this problem is to assert a social Darwinism where eventually all will lose.  The problem is indeed this alarming.

Among the emerging solutions are plans for “green” and low-carbon zones. China’s leaders have made ambitious commitments to reduce the carbon and energy intensity of the economy and transition to a low-carbon growth path.  The idea is to use the experimental nature of the SEZ to demonstrate the potential sustainability of infrastructure constructed for renewable energy sources, while creating an incubator for Green Tech industry.  There is a concrete plan to convert Jilin City in China’s northeast into the first low-carbon SEZ.  The plan is sponsored by the UK and features several British businesses that signed on nearly 5 years ago. The low-carbon SEZ was incorporated into the PRC’s 12th FYP and scaled up to include 13 other cities and provinces (Farole, p.305) representing President Hu Jintao’s commitment to a 40– 45 percent reduction in the carbon intensity of GDP by 2020, relative to 2005. This FYP also includes an explicit short-term target to reduce carbon intensity by 17 percent by the end of 2015 (Baeumler, loc790).  I have searched for evidence online and asked academics I met while in China and conclude that no significant low-carbon reform promises made in the 12th FYP have yet come to fruition.

I speculate three reasons for the stalled project: the project is enormous and the knowledge base required to execute this feat of engineering is absent, the cost to develop clean technology infrastructure is prohibitively high, and as an internal PRC document on Wikileaks suggests, many officials fail to see the project’s importance and the environmental urgency.  Additionally, issues related to intellectual property, project financing and emerging market subsidies all require innovative planning as the infrastructure for clean energy and the logistics for green systems are designed.  Meanwhile, we sit on the cusp of change with utopian plans just out of reach.

India and China share a common problem in their failure to enforce policy. However, India offers a different perspective on environmental policy by introducing the significance of litigation.  Unlike Shenzhen, very little data exists on Gurgaon so an examination of national environmental issues will provide an historical perspective to discuss India’s proposal for green SEZs. 

in India


The history of environmental regulation in India dates back to the 1972 with the Wildlife (Protection) Act. Other significant legislation includes the Water Act of 1974 and Air Act of 1981. The Environment (Protection) Act was enacted in 1986 with the objective of providing for the protection and improvement of the environment. It empowers the Central Government to establish authorities charged with preventing environmental pollution in all its forms and to tackle specific environmental problems that are particular to different parts of the country. The Act was last amended in 1991 (MOEF.nic.in).

The Environment (Protection) Act is among the legislation that falls under the guidance of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF).  The MoEf was first created in 1980 to establish the overall policies and is responsible for: 1) regulating and ensuring environmental protection; 2) formulating the environmental policy framework in the country; 3) undertaking conservation & survey of flora, fauna, forests and wildlife; and 4) planning, promotion, co-ordination and overseeing the implementation of environmental and forestry.  The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and State Pollution Control Boards (SPCBs) are specifically intended to prevent and control industrial pollution (Shaw, p.201).  These agencies are not known for their efficacy.

Nothing has impacted attitudes about environmental issues in India as the chemical leak in Bhopal in 1984.  One evening in December thousands of tons of deadly chemicals (methyl isocyanate, MIC, and still unnamed others) leaked from the Union Carbide Chemical (UCC) plant immediately killing approximately 10,000 people.  Another 15,000 have died since (Amnesty International, p.2).  This horrific tragedy continues to raise fundamental questions about corporate responsibility, accountability and ethics.  The central government realized the criminality of the case and issued a warrant for the arrest of UCC’s CEO, Warren Anderson.  Despite the warrant, Anderson was able to board a US-bound plane where he remains today, protected by the US who refuses extradition.

More than 25 years later, all of the institutions that were designed to protect have failed the people of Bhopal.  They have not healed, received neither treatment nor “compensation,” and the toxins released into the environment in Bhopal have never been cleaned.  Not only have they not been absorbed through the healing powers of the planet, they have biomagnified—the toxins amplify as they work through each stage of the food chain, eventually becoming part of every cell of every living thing in the ecosystem (Withgott, p.385).

The tragedy in Bhopal represents the diabolical nature of corporate and political greed and shirked responsibility.  Many related cases have worked their way through the Indian court system.  The Supreme Court often rules in favor of the people of Bhopal, yet no justice has been met because the rulings are not enforced.  Subsequent rulings on other cases have reinforced that the “precautionary principle” and the “polluter pays principle” are to be applied and are essential for sustainable development (Shaw, p.203).  Sustainable development policy principles continue to be on trend for the future as they are now emerging from the current power structure in India.  The key, however, is to put these policies into practice.

Greenstone and Hanna have said, “the legitimacy to enforce policies appears to be a strong predictor of success. In particular, the Supreme Court enjoys substantial power within the Indian government and there is an established history of the Court providing an effective and visible outlet for public activism” (Greenstone, p.25).  Yet the recently published policies remain vague on the issue of enforcement and often fail to assign jurisdiction. For example, Greenstone and Hanna also reference the 2006 MoEF Public Accounts Committee Report to Parliament in a footnote stating that it only mentions the word “enforcement” once in over 100 pages (Greenstone, p.26).  Optimistically, we can view the creation of sustainable development policy as a steppingstone to reform.

Many modern policies have resulted from the litigious actions of Indian citizens in response to high levels of pollution.  One example is the National Environment Policy (NEP).  It was formulated in 2006 to act as a guideline to central and state-run environment conservation and pollution control bodies, and was the outcome of extensive consultations with experts in different disciplines, central ministries, MPs, state governments, industry associations, academic and research institutions, civil society, NGOs and the public.  This concerted effort towards conservation may finally be supported by internal monitoring (Outlook India, 2012). The NEP includes a formal periodic review process that is intended to enhance accountability and promote transparency by publicly disclosing reports (Shrivastava, 2010).  All reports and public filings have been made available through the Right to Information Act of 2005.  Written requests for information have been reasonably satisfied and empowered many activists.  While conducting research in Delhi in 2011, several NGOs I spoke with referenced this act citing its significance in furthering their organization.

One such organization sought to restore their environment that had been devastated by the installation of a sewage pipe and a flyover highway constructed in 2008 in preparation for the Commonwealth Games.  The new pipe contaminated the largest natural water body in south Delhi, Neela Hauz at Aruna Asif Ali Marg near Vasant Kunj.  The construction also clear-cut the delicate Mehrauli ecosystem that encompasses the area.  The development occurred without communicating with the affected community so the people galvanized and confronted the developers litigiously.  Armed with documents received through the Right to Information Act, they produced the numbers of trees and species destroyed to the court.  In 2009, the Supreme Court ordered a restoration project that includes a new biodiversity Park. The pristine environment can never be returned, but the process educated a once environmentally unaware community.

In a post site-visit meeting with community organizers at Jawaharlal Nehru University on February 15, 2011, the activists said that they spoke with many residents who had been oblivious to their natural environment.  Armed with information, people stepped out of their routines to be educated, and then became educators themselves.  Environmentalism for middle class interests can involve a broad range of stakeholders to collectively address an issue. Greenstone and Hanna conclude from their data that bottom-up environmental policies are more likely to succeed than policies that are initiated by political institutions—such as the PRC (Greenstone, p.5).  Their data flies in the face of the thousands of SEZs modeled after Shenzhen’s top-down policies.  India’s democratic practices prevent the successful application of the Shenzhen package.  Therefore, India will need to forge its own way to a reform of environmentally destructive practices.

India’s relationship with land is also very different from China’s.  Significantly, many Indians don’t believe that they have a shortage of arable land (Palit, p.xvi).  Land has been a perceived bounty that lends itself to an anthropomorphic relationship with man.  It is the subject of many dramas, mitti and khoon (land and blood), that express the pain of being alienated from one’s land (Palit, p.148).  So issues related to land acquisition earn ire and receive headlines while issues related to environmental degradation have been outside of the general consciousness.  Environmentalist Sunita Narain refers to it as “environmentalism of the poor.”

Calling for increased responsibility, Narain is a defender of the underdog as she fights for the rights of those who lose their livelihood in the name of development.  “Our challenge is to provide the gains of development to vast numbers of people. This requires inventing growth that is both affordable and sustainable” (Narain, 2011).  This movement doesn’t call for anything resembling “band aid” solutions or steady-state economics, but demands unlimited growth in India without fossil fuels.  Enter the Guidelines for Green SEZs that promised to deliver exactly that.

Green SEZs 

There is surprisingly little written about the plan for green SEZs.  The first reference I found to them was in their announcement in 2009.  The Press Trust of India reported that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, before leaving for Copenhagen Summit (COP15), declared that India would reduce emissions by 20-25 per cent in 2020 compared to levels in 2005, because India is a responsible member of the international community.  The Draft Guidelines for Green SEZs was rolled out during COP15 in December, 2009.

The guidelines are an expansive list of 44 bulletpointed demands for certified SEZ operation—and all must be certified, existing and new including the 431 SEZs in various stages of development.  The guidelines read like an environmentalist’s wish list.

12 of the 44 new requirements for India’s Green SEZs:

  • 100% renewable energy sources for optimized energy use
  • Vegetated and solar roofing
  • 100% of organic waste power generation
  • 25% of the installed external lighting load should be solar powered
  • 30% of the rainwater must be harvested
  • 100% waste water treatment for re-use in landscaping, flushing and air- conditioning
  • Protect or restore the existing water bodies to promote bio- diversity
  • Prevent construction activity pollution
  • Preserve or transplant existing trees, wherever appropriate.
  • Proximity to modes of local mass transportation
  • Electric Rickshaw shall be provided in the Zone for internal transportation
  • Bicycle lanes provided to encourage occupants in cycling to and from work place

The document itself is quite thin, and glaringly absent is any reference to cost and implementation.  It reads like a list of demands that The Wall Street Journal estimates would increase new development cost up to 40%.  Last July, the Indian government announced that plan for green SEZs are suspended.  “Gaurav Shorey, an architect and energy consultant who was with The Energy and Resources Institute (Teri), said the green SEZ policy has been shelved due to pressure from private developers, who think such a policy is an additional burden” (Livemint, 2011).  Mr Shorey was referencing the new taxes for 2012-13 on profits and dividends for SEZ developers (Livemint, 2011).  There has been little reaction to the news because there really isn’t much to say about a half-hearted effort to establish a top-down policy that most citizens want.

I don’t intend to portray Indian officials as simply offering lip service to the green agenda.  They are experiencing enormous pressure from foreign investors to raise GDP growth to 10% while striving to achieve a vision of sustainable and equitable growth for their citizens (World Economic Forum in India 2011).  As India struggles to create a new model of democratic capitalism, delays to ecological progress may impact their economic progress.