For China’s academic-turned environment chief Chen Jining, the first thing to consider after waking up every morning is no longer his students, but the color of the sky.
The new Chinese environmental protection minister, who was appointed last week, is tasked with spearheading his country’s uphill drive to resolve a conflict between environmental protection and economic development that he has described as “unprecedented in human history.”
One year after the world’s second-largest economy “declared war” on the pollution that has taken a heavy toll on its air, water and soil during its three-decade dash for growth, Chinese leaders are resolved to alleviate the environmental woes.
On Friday, President Xi Jinping asked Chinese people to protect the environment like “caring for one’s own eyes and life.”
“We are going to punish, with an iron hand, any violators who destroy ecology or environment, with no exceptions,” said Xi while reviewing the work report of the State Council together with National People’s Congress (NPC) deputies from Jiangxi Province.
In his annual report at the National People’s Congress (NPC), Premier Li Keqiang compared pollution to “a blight on people’s quality of life” and promised that the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide will cut such emissions by at least 3.1 percent this year.
On Saturday, Chen, a 51-year-old environmental scientist and former president of the prestigious Tsinghua University, echoed the leaders’ rhetoric and gave his suggestions for easing the development-environment conflict that he believes is more severe than that Germany and Japan faced in their early industrialization.
He pledged tougher environmental law enforcement, innovation and market leverage to help the world’s most populous country cut pollution.
The environmental issues “cannot be addressed with undue haste, but neither should they be allowed to go unchecked,” he told a press conference on the sidelines of the country’s ongoing NPC session.
A new law also went into effect on Jan. 1, giving the country more powers to punish officials breaking environmental regulations. It follows allegations of corruption in the watchdogs that are supposed to enforce rules on environmental standards.
In response, the novice minister warned that graft in environmental impact assessments should never be tolerated, vowing to crack down on illegal mediation between polluting enterprises and the watchdogs.
Chen promised to speed up China’s pollution control with economic leverage including legislation on environmental protection tax.
Environmental protection is an important growth driver for China, he said, stressing that the demand for investment will be huge in years to come.
According to the minister, the market for environmental protection in China will be worth around 8 trillion yuan (1.3 trillion U.S. dollars) to 10 trillion yuan in the next few years.
Such investment provides “good momentum” for economic growth, he added.
Currently, the government provides about 30 to 40 percent of the funding for environmental protection. Experts believe the private capital needs to be given fuller access to this market.
Chen said that his ministry will advance price reform to build a mechanism for measuring project returns and ease market access by means such as public-private partnerships. He also said that China will cooperate with other nations and international organizations in the battle against pollution.
His remarks came months after Beijing and Washington, the world’s two leading emitters, reached a historic climate deal, in which China is committed to increasing the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 20 percent by 2030.
Chen’s promise also came in advance of a new universal climate agreement expected to be inked in Paris in December.
The minister urged developed countries to take the lead and offer more capital and technological assistance to developing countries to tackle climate change.
He voiced hope that parties attending the Paris climate conference will respect the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and follow the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities to reach an agreement as soon as possible.
Pollution has remained a hot topic at China’s annual sessions of the top legislature and political advisory body.
Talking about the smog that has been blanketing most of China, Chen said “extra efforts” should be made.
More than 80 percent of about 300 monitored cities failed to meet the official standard of air quality last year, with smog most frequently hitting the Yangtze River and Pearl River deltas as well as the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region.
“No country in the world is making such great efforts as China to combat air pollution,” Chen said.
The government will strengthen implementation of the revised environmental protection law and improve pollution controls, he vowed.
As China is gearing up for a slower but more self-sustaining growth, observers have warned that as the country’s coastal regions turn against pollution, low-end manufacturers and factories may be relocated to the poorer central and western regions that are desperate for investment.
Chen pledged not to let this happen: “We will not allow the central and western regions to become a harbor for polluting enterprises.”
He also vowed to pay more attention to pollution in China’s countryside, where the the amount of pollutants is also on the rise.
The central government allocated 25 billion yuan to deal with rural pollution at the end of 2014.
While the fund is expected to cover 59,000 villages and benefit 110 million people, it still looks inadequate compared with spending on urban pollution.
“Problems such as administration loopholes, weak public awareness and lack of supervision still exist,” said Qin Dahe, an academic with the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
He suggested long-term planning with a focus on promoting green techniques. Enditem