Chinese authorities have introduced amendments to the country’s Environmental Protection Law imposing tougher penalties on polluters, legislation that comes amid a growing environmental crisis that is choking the country.
The amendments passed by the Standing Committee of China's National People's Congress (NPC), the country's top legislature, will come into effect in January 2015.
It is the first change to the legislation in 25 years. The country’s Environmental Protection Law was introduced in 1989.
The changes come in the wake of public concern over the high level of pollution in the country as well as a two-year debate among scholars, the government and state-owned enterprises over changes to environmental protection policies.
According to Xin Chunying, deputy director of the Standing Committee’s Legislative Affairs Commission, the legislation would deliver "a blow ... to our country's harsh environmental realities," Reuters reported.
It will enable the Environmental Protection Ministry to take stronger punitive action toward polluters, including shutting down and confiscating their assets. The amendments will also make public the information on environmental monitoring and introduce a daily-based fine system to punish offenders.
The law says that those responsible for environmental pollution will face up to 15 days under arrest if their enterprise produces or uses forbidden pesticides and refuses to suspend production after being issued a ban.
Chinese legislators also introduced an “ecological red line" that will declare certain regions off-limits for polluting industries. The law also contains special articles and provisions on tackling smog as well as making citizens more aware of environmental protection.
Local officials may be demoted or sacked, if they are guilty of covering up environment-related wrongdoing, falsifying data or if they don’t give closure orders to enterprises which illegally discharge pollutants, the amendments say.
June 5 has also been declared Environment Day in the country.
"The biggest breakthrough is ... that [the ministry] have used a professional document to talk about the disclosure of environmental information and public participation,” said Ma Jun, head of the Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs, an independent environmental group. “This, in fact, establishes some of the public's basic environmental rights."
The Chinese government has been trying to introduce policies to clean up the environment, including “cloud seeding” – artificial rain – to disperse the smog that affects the majority of the country’s cities.
The smog has become so thick it is impeding photosynthesis, potentially disrupting China’s food supply. According to an associate professor at China Agricultural University, He Dongxian, if air pollution continues at the same rate, China will experience something akin to a “nuclear winter.”
According to China’s deputy minister of environmental protection, 71 out of 74 cities monitored in China for pollution in 2013 fail to meet Beijing-set standards.
The deteriorating quality of drinking water is considered one of the country’s major problems. According to an annual report by China’s Ministry of Land and Resources, at least 60 percent of underground water is polluted in the country.
The enormous rate of the water pollution in the country sparked new concerns in April after cancer-inducing benzene was found in water supply in the city of Lanzhou, which is considered one of the most polluted in the country.
The soil is also massively polluted across the country. According to a report released earlier in April on the website of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, one-fifth of Chinese farmland is polluted as a result of the country’s dramatic industrialization, overuse of farm chemicals and minimal environmental protection.