Environmental Champion Pan Yue Could be China's New Minister of Environmental Protection


Leaders of the Chinese government gathered in Beijing yesterday for the National People’s Congress, an annual meeting in which the top legislative body discusses and votes on major issues and legislation. During this year’s NPC, several new members of China’s State Council will also be sworn in, including new President Xi Jinping and new Premier Li Keqiang. Additionally, at least half of the cabinet’s ministers will be new. Among the list of candidates recommended for the Minister of Environmental Protection (MEP) is Pan Yue, who is currently serving as Vice Minister. Since he first joined MEP in 2003, Pan Yue has been one of the government’s most outspoken and fearless advocates for environmental protection. Appointing Pan Yue as the new Minister of Environmental Protection would send a strong signal domestically and internationally that China is serious about addressing its worsening environmental crises.


In the mid-2000’s, Pan Yue led a fierce campaign (known in China as the “environmental protection storm” 环保风暴) to challenge China’s giant government-backed polluters. When Pan first took office, he ordered 30 projects worth $14 billion in investments, ranging from thermal power to hydroelectric plants, to shut down for not filing proper Environmental Impact Assessments. He also advocated for information disclosure and public participation by ordering local authorities to release pollution data and encouraging NGOs and journalists to expose environmental wrongdoing. To Pan Yue, public participation is a key principle that reflects the development of a society, and is a requirement for both economic growth and environmental protection (see his theory on environmental protection and social justice in Chinese here.)  

Other policies from his campaign included providing economic incentives for sustainable development, adding local official’s environmental protection record to their job performance appraisals, and using green GDP to calculate China’s economic growth. But by 2008, his public criticism of powerful state interests led the Party to take away his position of environment spokesperson and his power to block projects that pollute, waste energy, or hurt biodiversity. His green GDP policy was shelved, and the 30 projects he halted resumed construction after paying small fines.

But even though Pan Yue’s policies met opposition and setbacks, they ignited a national debate on the need to balance economic growth and environmental protection. Just last week, a green GDP pilot system was launched in the Kubuqi Desert region of Inner Mongolia in order to establish an accurate system for evaluating gross GDP against environmental losses. In 2009 alone, pollution cost China nearly 1.4 trillion yuan, or 3.8% of GDP. Therefore, establishing a consistent and accurate methodology for evaluating economic growth with regard to ecological damage and natural resource depletion will push China to find a more balanced approach. 

During yesterday’s NPC, Premier Wen Jiabao began the plenary session with a 2013 work report, which had been approved by the incoming leadership team, that highlighted achievements from the past five years and areas of focus for the coming year. Premier Wen emphasized strengthening ecological improvement and environmental protection, while Fu Ying, spokeswoman for the Parliament session, said that two environmental laws will be tightened – further cutting emissions and linking environmental protection efforts with local government performance evaluations, a policy reform that Pan Yue has been advocating for years.

As evidence regarding the health impacts of air pollution continues to grow, there is mounting public anger and pressure for the government to act. China has already proposed a number of new measures, including new fuel standards and air pollution regulations. The new leadership should continue this momentum by appointing proven environmental leaders to office. I have met Pan Yue on several occasions and have long admired his courageous efforts, which have earned him praise domestically and abroad. China desperately needs a champion like Pan Yue who can address the formidable challenges blocking environmental progress, including conflicts of interest, weak enforcement and powerful state-owned enterprises.

This blog was coauthored with my colleague Christine Xu.

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