Window of opportunity for EU-China environmental cooperation

The creation of China´s Ministry of Ecological Environment announced last week is one of the major green news this year. The new ministry, headed by Li Ganjie, will be in charge of climate policy, marine environment and pollution from agricultural sources, in addition to the tasks of the old Ministry of the Environment.

A more powerful ministry is good news both for China and for global environmental governance. Coordination at the national level can improve. For example, climate policy can more closely be connected to other policy areas such as air pollution, water protection and biological diversity. Hopefully, disruptive infighting between different governmental bodies can be reduced. Another significant change is the creation of a new Ministry for Natural Resources, bringing together responsibilities for forestry, agriculture and land resources.

The organisation changes can also facilitate international cooperation. At a press conference on March 17, Li Ganjie emphasised China´s role in global governance `to build a clean and beautiful world´. The European Union and its member states should move quickly to make good use of this opportunity. Here are three examples of possible areas for deepened cooperation:

Air pollution. China´s efforts to reduce emissions are yielding results.  With Xi Jinping likely to stay in power for a long time, cleaner air will most probably remain one of the major items on the political agenda. Li Ganjie has already indicated that stricter limit values will be set for particulate matter (PM 2.5) for the period after 2020. The European Union and its member states are already cooperating with China in this area, but more can be done for example regarding: policy measures for better fuel quality including shipping, economic instruments for cost-efficient reduction of sulphur and nitrogen oxide emissions, coherent strategies against volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and in-use vehicles control. Deepened cooperation on air pollution is also relevant in an East Asia regional context, where well-designed involvement of third parties such as the EU can help bridge historical tensions between China, Japan and Korea.

Climate change. Since Donald Trump took office, China and the European Union are the two main drivers for continued global efforts to combat climate change. Strengthened cooperation can include  knowledge sharing on carbon taxes as a complementary strategy to the highly risky Chinese emission trading experiment, joint assessments on the efficiency of policy measures (that can feed into a developed `Policies and measures´part of the climate convention), and reducing negative climate impacts of infrastructure investments (with the Belt and Road initiative as one example).

Non-toxic material cycles. China has a crucial role in global production networks and value chains. This is also true for recycling. Last year´s ban on imports of plastic waste has raised concerns in rich countries dependent on exporting such used materials to China. However, the ban is understandable given the health and environmental problems linked to often illegal waste imports. Instead, the decision and further ambitions of the Chinese government can give useful impetus to more ambitious policies within the European Union, for example to the negotiation on the new strategy on plastic waste.  Europe and China can cooperate more closely in global frameworks such as the Basel convention and international governance of chemicals. Another aspect is the ecological effects of imported natural resources, well highlighted in a recent report by China Council and in the European Union´s conclusions on resource efficiency.

There are of course many other possible areas for deepened cooperation and much is already happening. However, now is a good time for a more coherent and strategic approach, and closer coordination between EU member states. From a geopolitical perspective, such cooperation can also facilitate long-term stability in the region, including Korea and Japan in a broader EU-East Asia context.

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