The 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China convened on October 16, 2022, and lit the way towards a new era of ecological civilization.
The report delivered to the National Congress by President Xi Jinping, titled Hold High the Great Banner of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics and Strive in Unity to Build a Modern Socialist Country in All Respects（高举中国特色社会主义伟大旗帜为全面建设社会主义现代化国家而团结奋斗）, had, for the first time ever, an entire section devoted to ecology and the environment: Part 10 — Pursuing Green Development and Promoting Harmony between Humanity and Nature.
The text of the section lays out goals that must be achieved in order to construct an ecological civilization: in thought, it emphasizes the modernization of living in harmony with nature; in ideology, it raises the concepts of integrated protection, systematic management, and inclusive development; and, in terms of more practical measures, it sets forth the initiatives of working towards a green, low-carbon economy and society, intensifying pollution prevention and control, enhancing ecological diversity, and actively striving to reach peak carbon emissions and carbon neutrality.
1. The Four Major Initiatives
These initiatives form a roadmap for deepening and strengthening the important governance work that has already been done in the defense of blue skies, clear waters, and clean lands, including: the ecological protection and management of major rivers, lakes, and reservoirs, the design and construction of environmental infrastructure, and major engineering works to protect and restore important ecological systems. Included in this roadmap are tasks which have already been deployed as part of the 14th Five-Year Plan such as controls for new pollutants, the construction of a mechanism to realize the market value of ecosystem products, the dual control system for total carbon emissions and carbon intensity, and major projects to product biological diversity.
2. Future Development – A Roadmap
The report emphasized a need to accelerate China’s transition to a green way of development, implement holistic resource-saving strategies, and work to transform industry to a green, low-carbon model. Guiding the people towards making green consumer choices is also integral to driving both industry and society towards green, low-carbon ways of being.
Modern China has already been working hard to implement holistic resource-saving strategies: in 2017, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and two other ministries issued the Guiding Opinions on Accelerating the Development of the Renewable Resources Industry（加快推进再生资源产业发展的指导意见）, in 2021, the NDRC issued the 14th Five-Year Plan for Circular Economy Development（“十四五”循环经济发展规划）, and in 2022 the NDRC together with multiple other ministries issued the Guiding Opinions on the Accelerated Construction of a Recycling System for Waste Materials(关于加快废旧物资循环利用体系建设的指导意见).
The promotion of green development and green living was announced by General Secretary Xi back in 2017 together with six major tasks that would need to be achieved in order to profoundly revolutionize Chinese development for the better:
- Accelerate economic and development transformations;
- Scale up comprehensive environmental and pollution controls;
- Push harder for ecological protection and restoration;
- Comprehensively facilitate the conservation and intensive use of resources;
- Guide the people towards green consumption choices;
- Perfect ecological civilization structures.
Intensifying Pollution Prevention and Control
On the topic of pollution prevention and control, the report states:
We will make further efforts to keep our skies blue, waters clear, and lands clean… we will basically eliminate serious air pollution… and generally eliminate black, malodorous water bodies in cities. We will strengthen prevention and control of soil contamination at the source… The environmental infrastructure will be upgraded and living environments in both urban and rural areas will be improved.
The last decade has seen China’s ecology and environment improve overall: good quality water (Class I-III) was found in 84.9% of the 3641 water segments surveyed in the 2021 National Surface Water Assessment (this number is close to the results from developed countries); harmful PM2.5 concentration in prefecture-level and above cities nationwide dropped from a yearly average of 46µg/m3 in 2016 to 30µg/m3 in 2021, a feat which is the fastest rate for air quality improvement worldwide; and basic systems have been put in place to control land environmental risk across the nation as the first steps towards reigning in heavy soil pollution. The Safe Utilization Rate of Contaminated Farmland has stabilized at over 90%, showing an overall stabilization of the soil environment on farms.
The report sets out water, air, and the land as important governance matters, and emphasizes that improving the ecology and environment is necessary to achieve a beautiful life for the people.
Accelerate Ecological Preservation Work
The report states:
Major projects for preserving and restoring key ecosystems will be carried out at a faster pace in priority areas…We will…carry out major biodiversity protection projects… promote the natural regeneration of grasslands, forests, rivers, lakes, and wetlands, enforce the 10-year fishing ban on the Yangtze River, and improve the system of fallowing and crop rotation….and prevent and treat harm caused by invasions of exotic species.
The major biodiversity protection projects set into motion since the Party’s 19th National Congress are the most significant of China’s ecological preservation measures.
Jointly released by the NDRC and Ministry of Natural Resources in 2020, the Master Plan for Major Projects of National Important Ecosystem Protection and Restoration (2021-2035)(全国重要生态系统保护和修复重大工程总体规划（2021—2035年）) laid out 9 major projects and 47 key tasks distributed over all seven key ecosystems (1. The ecological barrier area of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau; 2. Key ecological regions of the Yellow River; 3. Key ecological regions of the Yangtze River; 4. The Northeastern Forest Belt; 5. The Northern Sand Control Belt; 6. hilly and mountainous areas in the south; 7. Coastal zones). The Master Plan effectively covers 25 areas of ecological functional importance across the nation, as well as key administrative areas such as the Capital Economic Zone, downstream of the Yellow River, the Helan Mountains, the Hexi Corridor, Dongting Lake, Poyang Lake, and the coastal zones.
The 20th National Congress report restates the importance of prioritizing major projects for preserving and restoring key ecosystems. In 2021, the State Council of the Communist Party of China issued Opinions on Further Strengthening Biodiversity Protection(关于进一步加强生物多样性保护的意见).
Actively Work Towards Dual-Carbon Goals
The report states:
Reaching peak carbon emissions and achieving carbon neutrality will…Based on China’s energy and resource endowment…advance initiatives to reach peak carbon emissions in a well-planned and phased way in line with the principle of building the new before discarding the old…We will thoroughly advance the energy revolution. Coal will be used in a cleaner and more efficient way…We will speed up the planning and development of a system for new energy sources…We will get actively involved in global governance in response to climate change.
In 2020 China exceeded its 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit emissions targets, and the report emphasized that, going forwards, active progress is to be made on the dual control system for carbon emissions and neutrality in a planned, systematic manner.
3. High-Quality Development as a Breakthrough Late-Stage Environmental Protection Measure: A Song for a New Age
Another key environmental concept in the 20th National Congress report is the infamous “high-quality development” concept. The term “high-quality development” appears frequently throughout the report whenever economic construction is discussed, and for good reason: while the environmental protection industry has managed to make a sizable impact in recent decades, environmentally friendly development often leaves much to desire in terms of quality. Professional technology in the industry has proliferated without really improving, and environmental protection enterprises are too often ineffective and lacking direction.
Policies to facilitate high-quality development are already in motion, such as the constantly expanding “SRDI (Specialized, Refinement, Differential, Innovation)” concept in recent years. Supplementing and reinforcing supply chains is of utmost importance with the ongoing restructuring of the global supply chain, and SRDI has been key to optimizing industries, allowing enterprises to shore up their weaknesses and break through bottlenecks. In recent years, these SRDI enterprises have slowly become the backbone of the nation’s economy.
4. Environmental Infrastructure Upgrades: Quantity in the Medium-Term, Quality in the Long-Term
The 10th section of the report is titled Pursuing Green Development and Promoting Harmony between Humanity and Nature, and one of the tangible pollution prevention and control initiatives described in this section is the upgrading of environmental infrastructure. What is inferred here is that existing environmental infrastructure is still inadequate, and that upgrading work needs to focus on both the quantity and quality of such infrastructure.
The February 2022 Guiding Opinions on Accelerating the Construction of Urban and Rural Environmental Infrastructure （关于加快推进城镇环境基础设施建设的指导意见）released by the NDRC, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, and the National Health Commission provides a more detailed explanation of the initiative. These Guiding Opinions were, in turn, guided by the Outline of the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) for National Economic and Social Development and Vision 2035 of the People’s Republic of China(中华人民共和国国民经济和社会发展第十四个五年规划和2035年远景目标纲要), and so their interpretation cannot be founded in the text of the Guiding Opinions alone.
Section 1: General Requirements Item (3): General Objectives of the Guiding Opinions clearly demands that urban environmental infrastructure is significantly upgraded, that the completion of key areas is accelerated, that weaknesses in key fields are bolstered, and that the collection, handling and disposal of wastewater, garbage, solid waste, hazardous waste, and medical waste and the monitoring of such is integrated into a single environmental infrastructure system, all by 2025. By 2030, there should be a basic, modern, environmental system in place that is complete, has been implemented effectively, makes use of intelligent green technology, and is stable and reliable.
Following on, Section 2: Accelerate Rectification of Shortcomings also provides clear directions:
- To complete the construction of systems to collect and dispose of wastewater and reclaim and reuse resources (that includes: integration with factory networks, the completion of pipeline networks in older, rural, and remote regions, pipe replacement and repair, resolving pipe connection issues, planning ahead, the separation of rainwater and wastewater, resource reclamation, and more);
- To systematically increase the ability to separate household wastes and dispose of such, regarding which “the construction of a household waste disposal system that can receive, collect, transport, and dispose of separated wastes” and “the construction of waste incineration facilities in urban built-up areas where the daily removal of domestic waste exceeds 300 tons must be accelerated” were mentioned.
- To progress with the construction of the infrastructure needed to dispose of solid wastes, and outlines plans to dispose of and use industrial solid wastes in industry parks, to refine and separate construction wastes and utilize reclaimed resources, and plans to recycle resources regionally, and also outlines the scope of comprehensive utilization of 100 types of bulk solid wastes.
The section emphasizes the importance of disposal capacity for hazardous and medical waste and sets out a clear objective of building a national and six regional hazardous waste risk prevention and control technology centers and 20 regional special hazardous waste centralized disposal centers.
5. Emphasizing Overall Advancements
The report uses the wording “…taking a holistic and systematic approach to the conservation and improvement of mountains, waters, forests, farmlands, grasslands, and deserts…We will make concerted efforts to improve aquatic environments, water resources, and aquatic ecosystems…”, emphasizing that each governance task is harmonious with others, and that a macro outlook of the whole system is what’s needed. Comprehensive, systematic, and at-the-source governance can only be properly focused on when the interconnectivity of the entire ecosystem is regarded as a whole.
The 20th National Congress clarified the present and future major policies of the Communist Party of China and the country. The Congress outlined a detailed blueprint for development, once again clarified the importance of the ecology and environment to national strategy, and set forth tangible strategies, requirements, and roadmaps for development going forward. The outlook is now extremely favorable for environment and ecology industries in China, and this is expected to further improve as the nation takes its next steps into a new era.