The Chinese government last week issued sweeping yet vague changes to the country's development policy, outlining a nationwide program to protect the environment. Of central concern are "natural areas with important ecological functions", which, according to the new policy, must be identified and protected in every corner of China by 2020.
Protection of the soon-to-be-designated regions will be inviolable, places where current and future "development is strictly prohibited". The move comes as vast swathes of the country, and especially the industrialized northeast, have suffered brutal and sometimes debilitating pollution levels typified by this winter's 'Airpocalypse'.
But the "ecological red lines" Beijing is currently pursuing aim for far more than bringing air quality levels under control. Made public by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China in cooperation with the State Council, the edict encompasses nothing less than every section of the country
...important to water and soil conservation, biodiversity, wind-breaking and sand fixation, as well as ecologically fragile zones prone to soil erosion, desertification and salinization...By the end of 2020, the demarcation of the border and calibration of the regions should be completed and an ecological protection "red line" system will be basically established.
While most of the country has just under three years to decipher and implement the new regulations, as of now there are few hard and fast guidelines to follow. No announcements have been made regarding failure to protect natural places, nor have any new laws been issued regarding people or companies that may violate the policy in the future. However, the government of Sichuan last year placed 197,000 square kilometers of land — or 40 percent of of the province's total area — under conservation, an action which although still in its infancy may provide other provinces and administrative regions with a blueprint.
Some places in China where environmental degradation is extremely pronounced have an accelerated timeframe. Specifically, Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei, as well as "regions along the Yangtze River Delta Economic Zone" must complete their red line assessments before the end of 2017. Such haste epitomizes just how dire China's environmental situation has become, and the State Council report goes as far as obliquely criticizing 30 years of pro-growth ethos, declaring, "unfettered development at the cost of the environment has had its day".
If as ambitious as President Xi Jinping's two other signature projects — the Belt and Road Initiative and a nationwide anticorruption campaign — are any indication, provincial governments will be severely tested while trying to live up to the expectations laid out by Beijing. Nonetheless, the "red line" policy looks primed to affect nearly all aspects of the Chinese economy for years to come.
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