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Thursday, May 15, 2014

A brighter future in China?

This week has seen two important announcements from China – both of them pieces of legislation that are designed to protect the environment and the ecosystems that thrive in it. It seems that after many years of being criticized by the international community (sometimes unfairly, considering the record of many other countries on these issues), China is finally taking notice and starting to implement some serious changes.
The first piece of legislation is a revision of the country’s environmental law to impose harsh penalties on heavy polluters. Companies will also be ‘named and shamed’ for their activities, and individuals who are found to be responsible for a company’s polluting actions face the possibility of up to fifteen days in prison. Most importantly, there is no legal limit placed on the size of the fines that can be handed out to polluters, thus potentially negating the ‘externality’ problem that environmental laws often face. In many countries, including China before this revision, the fines for environmental pollution are so small that it is often more profitable to simply pollute and accept the fine as a standard cost of business. The lack of an upper limit on fines in the new Chinese legislation means that pollution can finally be made decisively unprofitable. Now all that remains is for Chinese politicians to actually follow through with this threat.
The second piece of legislation regards the Chinese practice of using endangered species in food and medicine. This has long been a problem that the rest of the world has bemoaned in Chinese culture, and the new law aims to address it by threatening jail sentences of up ten years for anyone who knowingly consumes a product made from endangered species. Considering the Chinese medicine market remains one of the main drivers for the trade in endangered animals, this law could potentially have a huge contribution to ecosystems around the world – but again, only if the politicians actually have the strength of will to enforce it properly.
While it remains to be seen how these laws work in practice, we can say that they are certainly a step in the right direction. Over the past few years, and partially in response to the recession, Western countries have become increasingly laissez-faire about environmental laws, with many conservative governments seeing them as ‘red tape’ and threatening to cut down on them in order to help their friends who own businesses. At the same time, China, a country which has traditionally been considered to have a very poor environmental record, and which has often been encouraged to ‘step up’ and play its part in global climate change talks, has begun to set an example for other countries to follow – whether developed or developing.
In the west there is a strong ideology that environmental change can come about without a systemic change – it can come merely from personal actions and individual choices. If we convince enough people to make the right personal choice, we will collectively protect our environment. This is a ridiculous way of looking at the situation, considering much of our pollution comes from systemic capitalist pressure to create profit – consequently, the only way we will really protect the environment is through strong government action and legislation that forces polluters to find other ways to act by imposing harsh penalties on them. China is beginning to do that – will the rest of the world follow their example?
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