February 3, 2015 Environment

High Hopes for a Greener China

The appointment of the President of Tsinghua University and International Water Association member, Dr. Jining Chen, as China’s new Minister of Environmental Protection has been widely welcomed amongst environmentalists. Dr. Chen will play a key role in delivering China’s goal of halting environmental degradation and ensuring greater environmental protection.

Dr. Chen’s extensive experience in environmental research and policy, along with his willingness to take a more activist stance on the environment, brings hope that China can make a progressive transition to a more sustainable, less polluting, low carbon economy. While Chen has a good grasp of China’s pollution woes, the challenges that he will face as Minister are significant.

China’s relentless economic growth, at a fairly constant rate of 9% per annum for the last thirty years, has come at the expense of great environmental, social and public health costs. According to a 2012 Asian Development Bank report, less than 1% of China’s 500 largest cities meet the air quality standards set by the WHO. Heavy air pollution has often made it onto the international news agenda, with images of a mask-wearing people in China’s main cities living with thick smog.

Yet, water depletion and water pollution are probably China’s most severe environmental hazards, threatening to undermine China’s economic stability and add to a growing public health burden. As China grows thirstier, water pollution and water scarcity are becoming major causes of concern for the Government. While massive water infrastructure projects, including the $48 billion South-North Water Diversion project, have been developed to address water scarcity, water pollution and quality have lagged behind.

Public anger at seemingly intractable pollution problems and a decrease in safe drinking water led the Government to declare a ‘war on pollution’ during the term of the preceding environment minister, Zhou Shengxian. Yet few polluting companies have been held accountable and regulations are frequently flouted.

Efforts to implement China’s environmental regulations have gained momentum, largely due to increasing public discontent with the effects of pollution and environmental degradation. A path towards a less polluting, more sustainable economy will be at the forefront of the challenges Dr. Chen faces as head of the Ministry of Environmental Protection.

Many of China’s recent policies aimed at cutting carbon emissions were nurtured at Tsinghua University, which Dr. Chen has presided over for almost 10 years. Tsinghua’s Laboratory of Low Carbon Energy and Institute of Low Carbon Economy have significantly contributed to shaping the country’s strategy towards a greener economy. It is a leader in research on low-carbon energy technology and low-carbon economic development.

His expertise in water pollution received wide acclaim in the aftermath of the 2005 chemical spill in the Songhua River. Dr. Chen advised Chinese authorities on mitigating the impact of this transboundary disaster, which poisoned drinking water to millions of people in China and Russia. His pragmatic approach will prove invaluable when tackling the problems of his water-stressed nation.

Dr. Chen has been an active member of the IWA for many years. As well as participating in numerous technical meetings and conferences, Dr. Chen was a programme committee member of the IWA World Water Congress in Beijing in 2006. He is currently an editorial board member of the IWA’s prestigious journal Water Science and Technology. He has been a board member of a number of national and international scientific committees and advisory councils related to water and the environment.