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By Julian Wong Apr.18.2008
In: governance, policy, urban planning

Illusions of Reform and the Need for Integrated Governance

Over the past week or so, I’ve had the privilege to get some high level access to some of the leading academics and government officials in Chinese environmental policy and law here in Beijing. I was an observer at a private high-level roundtable discussion on Chinese environmental governance held at Tsinghua University this past Sunday.

One of the first insights I gained was the skepticism a few members of the room expressed about the recent ministerial elevation of the State Environmental Protection Agency to the new Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP). While it is true that the MEP now gets a voting seat on the important and powerful State Council, decisions on the State Council, it was noted, are in practice made by consensus. Not only is it unlikely that manpower at the MEP will be increased as I had hoped in my earlier post, but the MEP is still grappling with fundamental questions about internal structure (for example, the relationship among the MEP in Beijing, regional environmental supervision centers and local environmental protection bureaus) and its relationship with respect to other ministries. One member charged that the current ministerial reforms were piecemeal should urgently be replaced with an overall farsighted blueprint.

The need for an integrated approach to government

Perhaps the most striking comment was one made by a US law professor, and seconded by a senior policy advocate from a clean energy think tank. The former suggested that the fourth generation of environmental regulation (the first three being “nuisance law” approaches, command-and-control regulation, market-based tools, in that order) is integrating environmental policy and planning functions with other governmental functions, such as finance, construction and transportation. The latter took the idea one step further, saying that China has every incentive to accelerate this so called “fourth generation” approach to “first generation”—the phenomenal growth of China’s economy necessitates it.

China is the fastest growing economy in the world, and coupled with its absolute size, its global impact is nothing short of profound; I have already previously observed that China accounts for around half of the world’s construction activities. In terms of law and policy reform, China is trying to accomplish in a decade or two what the US has taken more than a century to achieve—deregulating state companies, establishing rule of law, creating well functioning capital markets, introducing laws relating to intellectual property protection, anti-monopoly and bankruptcy, and even experimentations with democracy at local levels. It is shock-therapy of a different sort and scale, driven by a combination of desire and necessity to integrate with a globalized market moving at internet-speed.

But if China adopts merely a piece-meal approach to environmental considerations, as many critics charge, the time will soon come where a prioritization of environmental concerns would be too little too late. We are starting to see hints of integrated environmental governance in China, as evidenced by the Green Whirlwinds, which integrate environmental criteria into the regulation of the capital markets, credit, insurance and trade sectors. Most pressing is the integrated regulation of heavy industry (power production, cement, steel, etc.) and what better lever point is there than scrutinizing the construction industry? Buildings and their fixtures are made of or consume just about every industrial resource available (cement, brick, glass, steel, plastics, water, electricity).

But even the greening of construction alone is insufficient. Discrete buildings are part of an integrated whole. Integrated urban and transportation planning would take into account efficient and ecological planning of land use and transportation networks, which is why all levels of government, from the Ministry of Construction, Ministry of Transportation to municipal urban planning authorities, but to name a few, need to come to a shared vision of sustainability. While the recent surge in renewable energy technology investments across the world, and especially China, is encouraging, less thought is being put into managing energy demand, and even less is being put to how to implement and deploy renewable energy systems on city-wide or regional scales.

One group is taking an integrated approach, however, is Chora, a non-profit urban planning and architectural organization, which is undertaking a city-wide urban eco-planning initiative involving the deployment of a series of renewable energy projects. An inside source has informed me that Xiamen City, in the southeastern province of Fujian, is a candidate city for their initiative. I look forward to reporting more about Chora in the not too distant future.