China's environment minister, Chen Jining, said on Thursday that the government needed more power to go after polluters and local government officials that impede compliance with environmental regulations.
"Companies are under pressure and local governments are under pressure, but there is still a long way to go before every enterprise obeys the law," Chen said, according to Reuters.
China's pollution crisis has become increasingly severe. Air quality was so low in Beijing last December that the government issued its first official "red alert," which brought about school closures, limited factory production, and halved the number of cars allowed on the streets.
The minister said as many as 191,000 firms violated environmental regulations last year, Reuters reported. Of those, 20,000 were shut down and 34,000 suspended operations until complying with environmental standards.
Chen said that the country's revised 2015 environmental law needed to be stronger, and singled out local governments as standing in the way of attempts to get polluting companies to follow environmental regulations.
Deborah Seligsohn, a researcher at the University of California, San Diego, said comments like Chen's are part of a larger trend in China.
"For the last decade, the environment ministry has been continually pushing for more power and authority to enforce environmental rules," Seligsohn said. "And continually getting it."
As much as the central government is imposing restrictions on coal consumption and incentivizing renewable energy development on the national level, it hasn't been very successful at reaching individual companies outside of the power sector, like cement or steel producers, which might be using coal to manufacture their goods, Seligsohn said.
"What he's looking at is trying to increase pressure on [city governments]," she said.
02-17-2016 12:00 to 02-18-2016 11:59; PM2.5 24hr avg; 32.7; 94; Moderate
— BeijingAir (@BeijingAir) February 18, 2016
Alex Wang, an assistant professor at the UCLA School of Law, said tension between two countervailing forces is complicating any progress on air quality in China.
The first is a move away from large-scale, export-based manufacturing and towards a cleaner, more service-based domestic economy, which is widely viewed as a means to limit air pollution. The second is China's weakening economy, which might stall a transition from emissions-intensive production to cleaner forms of economic output.
Wang said the environment minister's comments signaled that his ministry is aligned with the central government's goal of a green transformation.
"The statement from the minister should be viewed as, 'We're team players, we're on board with what the leaders want,'" Wang said. "'We want to help do this, but we need more power to do it.'"
He added that Chen likely wanted more power to both ensure large power plants are curbing levels of pollution, while at the same time going after small polluters at the local level, which are harder to police and punish for environmental violations.
Despite improvements last year in China's air quality, Wang said, the country still suffers from incredibly bad pollution, especially during the winter, when heating use is highest.
"The 30,000-foot picture is that the positive side is that you're seeing some incremental decrease [in pollution]," he said, "but the extremes still seem to be as bad as they've ever been."
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