New environment minister set to boost Beijing carbon cut push

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China’s commitment to rein in carbon emissions is set for a boost with the likely appointment of Chen Jining, head of Beijing’s Tsinghua University, as environment minister, local environmentalists say.

Zhou Shengxian, the incumbent, is due to step down in March. Previously director of the State Forestry Administration, he has disappointed China’s growing environmental movement, which had hoped for a more activist stance. Two years ago, he received the lowest number of votes of any ministerial candidate from delegates to the annual National People’s Congress, who were voting to approve appointments.

Mr Chen’s appointment has not yet been announced but has been reported by Hong Kong media and confirmed by figures close to Beijing. His appointment is expected to strengthen the role played by think-tanks affiliated with Tsinghua, one of China’s most prestigious universities, in setting policy.

Many Beijing policies aimed at cutting carbon emissions were incubated at the university, and Mr Chen’s appointment is expected to smooth their implementation. Tsinghua’s Low Carbon Economy Lab helped draw up China’s road map for when the country is likely to see a peak in carbon emissions — blamed for the global warming that scientists fear could trigger catastrophic climate change. Other think-tanks hosted at Tsinghua focus on energy policy and technology issues.

Under Mr Chen, Tsinghua’s campus has been transformed, with the construction of modern glass and steel buildings, including a “green” office building designed to showcase energy-efficient building techniques.

The environment ministry commands relatively little power in the government bureaucracy, which has focused on economic growth. Formerly the State Environmental Protection Administration, the department was upgraded to a ministry in 2008.

But changes already under way will give Mr Chen a stronger hand. Plans for emissions to peak have been embraced by the National Development and Reform Commission, the powerful state planning agency. The commission hopes to shift power generation and heavy industry from wealthier population centres and towards the poorer west, reducing overall emissions as well as pollution levels in heavily populated cities.

China’s road map for a peak in emissions was unveiled at November’s Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum in Beijing. Xi Jinping, Chinese president, told regional leaders that a brief bout of clear skies following curbs on factories and vehicle traffic for the duration of the summit should become the norm in a city better known for its choking smog.

Efforts to enforce China’s environmental regulations have gradually gained teeth because of growing public dissatisfaction with the raft of pollution problems sparked by decades of rapid economic growth. New regulations allowing NGOs to bring lawsuits against polluters will add to the pressure on companies to comply with the laws.

While it is relatively unusual for a university chief in China to be named as a minister, it is not unknown. Wan Gang, the science minister, was previously head of Tongji University. In China’s bureaucratic hierarchy, university heads command the same rank as vice-ministers.

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