Summary and Keywords
China’s environmental challenges are unprecedented in terms of their size and severity. The country’s constantly evolving regulatory systems are a blend of lessons learned from Western market- and information-based regulations, China’s own unique political and administrative context as an authoritarian country, the complex relationship between its central and local governments, and the balance between the needs for environmental protection and economic growth. A close look at China’s environmental regulatory system may offer useful insights to those working toward a more sustainable future.
In the 21st century, the environmental regulatory system in China is entering a new era. Over the last three decades, efforts have focused on developing regulatory standards for air, water, and solid waste, among many other pollutants. This regulatory system primarily follows a command-and-control approach and is often criticized for its failure to curb China’s increasingly severe environmental degradation.
In the future, the Chinese government may pursue two routes. The first is to increase the use of market mechanisms and information tools to enable and incentivize more stakeholders, such as consumers, nongovernmental organizations, and communities, to engage in the development and enforcement of environmental regulations, for instance, through cap-and-trade systems, information-disclosure programs, and environmental insurance. However, existing evidence shows that the usefulness of these new instruments is limited.
Another route is to develop new mechanisms to strengthen the enforcement of traditional command-and-control regulations. Examples include making environmental performance a key performance indicator (KPI) in the performance appraisals of government officials or leveraging the power of financial sectors. These approaches are a footnote to the new argument in favor of environmental authoritarianism, which suggests that authoritarian regimes, setting authoritarian rules, may be more capable of handling complex environmental pressures. More studies need to be conducted on the effectiveness of these new approaches and the mechanisms by which they may achieve success.
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