Opportunities to Strengthen China’s Air Pollution Control Law


Since 2010, China has announced a series of increasingly comprehensive and stringent measures to improve air quality, including the landmark Air Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan (2013–2017) issued by the State Council in September 2013. These include requirements for regional air quality planning, plans for elimination of coal consumption in certain areas, a commitment to implement caps on coal consumption (at the provincial level by 2017 and likely 2020 at the national level), and specific pollutant reduction targets for key cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangdong. Nearly all significant Chinese cities (338 cities with a population greater than 100,000 people) and county-level governments are in the process of either preparing air quality plans or implementing plans that have been adopted since 2013.

The scope and stringency of these plans is unprecedented. When the United States and Europe suffered severe pollution from the 1940s through the 1970s, these regions dealt with pollutants one at a time, e.g., addressing smoke first, or car emissions, then acid rain, and then air pollution transport. China’s rapid development, coupled with improved public health and scientific knowledge, demands that all pollutants be addressed at the same time in order to mitigate the serious health and environmental impacts already occurring. Fortunately, recent data also suggests that a multi-pollutant approach that integrates energy efficiency and improved energy consumption is highly cost-effective, especially when compared to approaches that focus only on end-of-pipe technologies.

Despite the new air quality plans and strong political will to improve its environment, China’s ability to compel compliance and achieve the desired improvements is hampered by a weak and outdated air law (adopted in 1987 and last revised in 2000). China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) has recently issued draft amendments as part of an ongoing process to review the existing air law.

Drawing on decades of experience with the U.S. Clean Air Act (CAA), RAP made a series of recommendations to the NPC and the agencies advising the NPC. In place since the 1970s, some have called the CAA “the most powerful environmental law in the world.” Although it has some weaknesses, the CAA offers a strong model that Chinese policymakers could adapt and improve to meet their goals.

RAP’s recommendations fall into four areas:

  1. Authorize the national government to establish and periodically review air quality and emissions standards: The CAA gives the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) broad authority to develop and implement activities to improve air quality, including regulating pollutants not identified in the CAA, if found to negatively affect public health.
  2. Establish a consistent national process for China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) to follow: EPA must follow a consistent process when it adopts a new or revises an existing ambient air quality or sector-based emissions standard. The decision regarding which pollutants to regulate and the level of allowed emissions must be informed by the most recent science and public health data.
  3. Establish clear legal requirements without ambiguity: The required elements of each air quality plan must be clearly specified. Based on provisions of the CAA, we recommend that NPC require each plan to contain (a) Control measures that, when fully implemented, will result in the area attaining the ambient air quality standards; (b) Reasonable further progress that reflects annual reductions in total emissions and ambient pollutant concentrations; (c) An emissions inventory; (d) Permitting (licensing) requirements for the construction of new and revision of existing enterprises; and (e) Additional control measures designed to prevent the transport of pollution to another area.
  4. Authorize strong penalties for non-compliance: EPA is authorized to assess and collect penalties that recover the economic benefit of non-compliance for each day of each violation and prevent recurrence. There is no upper limit on the total penalty amount. The 1990 amendments also strengthened and expanded EPA’s criminal penalty authority for “knowing and willful” violations, and gave EPA administrative penalty authority to quickly address minor violations.

While CAA offers several good examples for China to consider, it does not explicitly integrate energy and air quality considerations. To address this, RAP recommends that China’s amended air law include requirements for energy and air regulators to coordinate their long-term planning and to share emissions and energy consumption data.

As with all Chinese laws, three readings of a proposed law are required before it can be adopted. The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress held the first reading of the amended air law on December 22, 2014. Another series of workshops on the amendments will occur in the early spring. RAP will be participating in these, and all subsequent workshops, as the process to amend this important law proceeds. Look for updates later this year.