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Sustainability

China upgrades environment ministry in reshuffling

As air quality improves, minister says enforcement campaign will continue

by Jean-François Tremblay
March 26, 2018 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 96, ISSUE 13

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Credit: Shutterstock
Pedestrians in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square don face masks during a smog alert in 2015.

As part of its largest government reshuffling since 1998, China has increased the power of its environment ministry. The current minister of environmental protection, Li Ganjie, will become minister of ecological environment, with added responsibility for climate change, agricultural pollution, and marine ecology. The change takes place as air quality improves in northern China cities that had been afflicted by chronic smog in recent winters.

At a press conference held on March 17 during the National People’s Congress, Li vowed to make permanent a campaign of strict enforcement of environmental regulations that began in late 2016. “You will note that one of the specific functions of the Ministry of Ecological Environment is to carry out the central government inspections,” he told reporters.

The government’s push to reduce pollution has been aggressive. Earlier this winter, residents in the north of China found themselves shivering because a swift shift from coal to natural gas heating, mandated by regulators, led to widespread gas shortages.

Strict enforcement of environmental regulations also led to shortages of materials and higher prices, as thousands of factories, many of them making chemical and drug ingredients, were ordered to stop production, sometimes permanently.

“We had to explain delays and higher prices to our customers in Europe and the U.S.,” Haijun Dong, CEO of the Nanjing-based fine chemicals producer PharmaBlock, told C&EN late last year. Dong noted that his company solved the problem by making in-house some starting materials it can no longer source from others.

But the enforcement campaign also yielded dramatic improvements in air quality in some of China’s dirtiest cities. A recent study led by Michael Greenstone, an economics professor at the University of Chicago, concluded that air pollution has dropped by 35% in Beijing and 39% in Shijiazhuang over the past four years.

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