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MEP Regular Press Conference (May)

On the morning of May 23, MEP held the monthly regular press conference to introduce the Thirteenth Five-Year Plan for National Environmental Protection Standards. Zou Shoumin, the Ministry’s Director General of the Department of Science, Technology, and Standards, and Wu Xuefang, Director of the Institute of Environmental Standards with CRAES attended the press conference, released relevant information, and responded to the questions raised by the news presses. Liu Youbin, Counsel with the Department of Communications and Education, moderated the press conference.

Moderator: My friends at the news circle, welcome to MEP regular press conference in May.

Environmental standards as an integral part of national environmental law-making, are the basis for developing environmental protection programs and plans, and for the competent environmental protection departments to administer by law. They are of great significance to improving the environmental quality, cutting down pollution, facilitating the technological and scientific advances in the environmental sector, and safeguarding the public health.

At today’s press conference, we invite Director General Zou Shoumin and Director Wu Xuefang to introduce China’s developments in environmental standards especially the 13th Five-Year Plan for National Environmental Protection Standards and take questions from you.

Zou: Environmental standards are important for improving environmental quality, mitigating pollution, and preventing environmental risks. They are the important basis for environmental management, supervision and inspection, and the guarantee for safeguarding the public health. So far, China has promulgated a total of 2,038 national environmental protection standards, 1,753 of which are valid, as well as 167 mandatory local standards on record. A framework of environmental protection standards which are classified into five categories at two levels has been established. The levels are national and local levels, and the categories cover environmental quality standards, pollutant discharge/emission (control) standards, environmental monitoring standards, environmental management specifications, and environmental basic standards.

The public is closely concerned with the leniency and severity of the environmental standards, and the quantity of the pollutant control items. There are 16 valid national standards on environmental quality which cover the main environmental factors like air, water, soil, noise and vibration, and nuclear and radiation; and 163 valid national standards on pollution control, including 75 air pollutant emission standards that regulate 120 control items, and 64 water pollutant discharge standards that regulate 158 control items. In general, the quantity of control items and the severity of the air and water pollutant emission/discharge standards are equivalent to the major developed countries and regions.

Now I’d like to take questions from our friends at the press.  

Moderator: The floor is yours.

Nanfang Metropolis Daily: The soil environment quality standards for agricultural lands and construction lands will be released by the end of 2017, in accordance with the 13th Five-Year Plan for National Environmental Protection Standards. How will they be different from the current standards? And how the “category-specific” management requirement is reflected?

Zou: The ongoing soil environment quality standards was issued in 1995, in order to prevent soil pollution, protect the ecological environment, safeguard the agricultural and forest production, and protect the human health. As it was issued in earlier days, the standard does not cover construction lands. In recent years, we’ve issued a series of technical specifications for the investigations, monitoring, evaluation, and restoration of some sites, and provided technical supports for the treatment and restoration of contaminated sites.

However, being seriously outdated, the standard applies to a small scope, covers a few pollutant items, and sets unreasonable limits for certain indicators. Therefore, three years ago, we accelerated the pace to amend the standard, a significant change of which is to divide the standard into two parts to regulate the soil environment quality of agricultural lands and construction plans separately.

The new standards are different from the original standard primarily in that they are developed based on the characteristics of soil pollution and soil environment risk management concepts, and reflect a change in the way of soil environment management. About the category-specific management, a. the new standards classify and target at agricultural lands and construction lands by land use; b. the new standards exercise category-specific management based on the level of contamination, and take such measures as restoration, change of land uses, and plantation of alternative crops. Different from the water and air environment quality standards, the regulation of land uses specified in the soil quality standard may protect the soil environment very effectively, as soil restoration is only one option. We’re hoping to release the two standards by the end of this year.

FT: Will the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement affect China’s future environmental agenda? Will China take a different approach? A lot of coal industries like coal chemical industry and coal power industry can be seen in northwestern region of the country. How does MEP view this phenomenon? 

Zou: Your first question is beyond my capacity, but I can try and give a brief answer. China will unswervingly stick to its own development path and implement the Paris Agreement as pledged. China will shoulder the obligations of the agreement by the common but differentiated principle and continue to honor our commitments. The NDRC is in charge of climate change issues. You may inquire NDRC for more details.  

About your second question, MEP is drafting the emission standard for coal chemical industry. The published emission standard for air pollutants from thermal power plants is the world’s toughest emission standard, in spite of which some power groups are still upgrading their facilities to achieve ultralow emissions. We will help optimize the industrial layout through environmental impact assessment, and the company decides where to seat their plants as long as it observes the national industrial policies and the layout requirements.

Jiemian News: It is reported that MEP is rolling out a major project on the cause and control of haze and smog. Are you at liberty to share some outputs? Some industrial insiders held that the wet-process desulfurization and denitrification technologies contributed to smog to a certain extent. Do you agree? How much do the wet-process desulfurization and denitrification technologies account, and what about dry-process technologies? How much do wet-process technologies contribute to smog?

Zou: Smog is a common concern. Since the start of the 12th Five-Year Plan period, plenty of national S&T programs, some of which are supported by MEP, have conducted first-stage researches on the causes of smog, and reached a preliminary consensus on the causes of heavy air pollution especially in winter: high intensity pollutants is the internal cause, adverse meteorological conditions is the external cause, and more intensive chemical conversion is the driving force.  

The reason why the news press and general public are unaware of the causes is the lack of a solid consensus in the science community and detailed studies on some mechanisms. That’s why Premier Li Keqiang demanded that an outstanding scientific research team be assembled to address three issues: a. the causes and mechanisms of heavy air pollution, and the possibility of a common consensus across all walks of life; b. an emission inventory that leads to heavy air pollution and the control technologies; c. research on the health protection in heavy air pollution and advices to the public.  

MEP is working with MOST, CAS, MOA, CMA, NHFPC, and universities to draft an implementation plan. Preliminary conclusions will be shared at next year’s Two Sessions.  

About your second question, little is known about whether the wet-process desulfurization process aggravates smog.  

The Paper: Environmental standards are an integral part of national standards. In your enforcement experience and the reports from the central inspection teams, it is common that a company that is reported to pollute the environment is found to meet pollution standards at the time of inspection. Last year water pollution was reported in Jiangxi, however, the water quality indicators were within limits, and none of the feature pollutants was tested. How do you view this? My second question is, in the 13th Five-Year Plan period, our national environmental standards are going to be complementary with pollution permitting and other new systems. Will you elaborate on how to make the complementation?

Zou: Emission/discharge standards are a yardstick to measure whether a company has met standards. The ongoing environmental regulations explicitly stipulate that all polluters shall observe relevant laws, regulations, and standards. The reasons for the first phenomenon are two-facet. First, the discharge of pollution has ups and downs and the company cannot prove it can always meet the standards even if a company does meet them at the time of inspection. Some companies may deliberately withhold information and deceive the inspectors into believing they’ve met the standards. We take different approaches including the satellite, drone, and automatic monitoring equipment to avoid deliberate pollution discharge. Moreover, the tip-line 12369 is available to report pollution as soon as possible, and the inspectors may rush to the scene and catch the polluter red-handed. 

The local inspectors may miss some feature pollutants harmful to the human health due to limited monitoring capacity. We’ve already required monitoring all of the indicators specified in the pollution standards, but this is a gradual progress.  

About your second question, pollution permit is the only legal certificate that allows a stationary source to release pollution. To enable this system to be complementary with the environmental standards, we will fill some gaps in standards.

Reuters: How much will China spend in five years from now to meet the objectives related to environmental standards? The first stage implementation of the air pollution action plan is coming to an end. Has the Chinese Government considered a similar plan for the next four to five years? Is the Chinese Government confident that all pollution activities meet environmental standards? What are your next moves?

Zou: Our annual budget for the formulation of environmental standards is estimated at around 30 mil. yuan to 50 mil. yuan during the 13th Five-Year Plan period. However, it is hard to put a figure on all the social inputs in the process. We’re trying to introduce about 800 environmental standards in five years, as said in the specific plan. The purpose is to fill in some gaps and update the emission/discharge standards that are more than five years old, especially the air pollutant emission standards.  

About your second question, this year is the final year for the first stage implementation of the air pollution action plan. Relevant departments are evaluating the implementation effects. About a future plan, the 13th Five-Year Plan for ecological environmental protection has set forth the goals and tasks by 2020. There will be a plan in place.

To answer your third question, MEP issued an attainment plan for the industrial pollution sources to steadily meet pollution standards by the end of 2020.  

Guangming Daily: Where are we with the formulation of soil environment quality standard, and what difficulties have been encountered?

Wu: The ongoing soil quality standard was formulated in 1995. Later, standards for environmental management of contaminated sites are put in place. As the soil quality standard is very old, the Ministry has been working on its amendments since 1995, organized 20 plus meetings and workshops and drafted up two standards, one is on agricultural lands and the other is on the construction lands. They will be released within the year.

As for the difficulty in the drafting process, soil pollution is different from the water and air pollution and risk management concept may be adopted. 

CCTV: This year’s government work report proposes to conduct “coal for electricity” and “coal for gas” projects in 3 mil. households in northern China. Where are we with this? Will different environmental standards be formulated for the development of Xiong’an New Area?

Zou: Your first question should be directed to the air pollution control department. So far as I know, the projects are being carried out on a tight schedule. There is a quota for Beijing, Hebei, and Tianjin, which will be assessed at the end of the year. I believe that these local governments pay great attention to air pollution, and that the targets will be met.  

About your second question, Xiong’an New Area is a major development strategy of the central authorities. We’re not considering introducing tougher environmental standards for its development. However, as a heavily polluted area, Baoding is enforcing special emission limits regarding air pollutants. Also, Hebei is protecting Baiyangdian by strict water pollutant discharge standards, but we’re not considering a special standard.  

Legal Daily: What with the sheer amount of national environmental standards, how well are they being observed? Is there any difference between the national standards and control standards? Can the standards available meet the regulatory requirements? Are there any gaps?

Zou: About the implementation of the environmental standards, two years ago we started to evaluate the implementation of the emission standards for key pollutants, especially standards that are more than five years old. The results showed the implementation is average. The regulatory departments have been strictly enforcing the standards, whereas some companies complain that certain standards are much too strict. We have factored into human health and technological upgrading concerns in the drafting of the standards. Some companies have to make an effort to meet the standard.   

About the difference between national standards and control standards, national discharge/emission standards are applicable to most industries. As for solid wastes, the standards shall provide for technical specifications and operational requirements, in addition to pollutant limits, so we name them control standards. The two kinds are the same in essence.  

There are certain gaps in environmental standards, and we will try to fill in the gaps in the 13th Five-Year Plan period.  

Jian Kang Bao: Last year’s national meeting on health set forth a strategic goal for healthy China. My question is, of the environmental standards proposed by the 13th Five-Year specific plan, are there any about the public health?

Wu: The ultimate goal of formulating environmental standards is to protect the public health. This is a very important consideration in drafting air, surface water, and soil quality standards, as well as emission standards, which is consistent with the provisions of the environment law. For example, we started to amend the indoor air quality evaluation guidance for passenger vehicles as early as 2011, as the car pollutants toluene, xylene, and ethyl are very harmful to the human health. We’re considering setting tougher emission limits and make them mandatory.

CNS: The amended ambient air quality standard added the PM2.5 and ozone indicators, which makes China’s emission standard meet with international standard, but with the standard of which organization? Are China’s limits of pollutant indicators the same as this standard?

Zou: The international organization is WHO. The ongoing air quality standard in China is equivalent to a more lenient version of the Interim Target-1 (IT-1) in the WHO air quality guidelines. It is at about the same level as India and Mexico and below that of the EU and U.S.. Many Chinese cities even can’t meet the IT-1, especially in heavy air pollution situations. Otherwise, the heavy air pollution won’t happen so often in winter.

Shanghai Securities News: You’re planning to issue guidance for effectiveness evaluation of the national environmental protection standards. Is there a timetable for this? And what are highlighted in the guidance?

Zou: The guidance was issued in September 2016. You may download the text on the Ministry’s website.  

Wu: Effectiveness evaluation is the integral part of the environmental standard related work. The air pollution law and other legislations provide for such evaluation on environmental quality standards and emission/discharge standards. We evaluate the effects, scope of application, and feasibility of the standards, the selection of pollutant items, and the scientificness of the limits. The guidance provides for the specific methods and specifications. Then, based on the conclusions, we decide whether to amend the standards.

People’s Daily: What are your considerations when you said the amendment of environmental standards is health-centered? Some standards planned by the 12th Five-Year Plan have not been completed drafting or amendment, why is that? Will a prospective approach adopted for standard formulation and amendment in the 13th Five-Year Plan period?

Zou: The environment protection law explicitly stipulates the purpose and ultimate goal of environmental protection as to protect the human health. Human health is a major concern in formulating and amending standards. For example, the pollutant items and limits in the water quality standards are decided based on environmental criteria, as well as other national and international standards.

About your second question, there are some reasons why the standards in the 12th Five-Year Plan are not formulated or amended. A. It often takes a long period to complete making a standard, during which new requirements emerge along with the social and economic progress and new environmental management needs. We did not foresee the new changes and had to make adaptation, which prolonged the formulation cycle.  B. there were significant technological advances and new indicators needed to be regulated.  C. The standard-related project implementing agencies and individuals changed a lot. In response, we will take targeted measures and enhance project management. The unfinished projects will be completed, and new standards will be formulated or amended.

Beijing News: You said your original purpose is to protect public health. Can you tell us something about the indoor air quality standards and air cleaner standards? MEP-EDC issued Technical requirement for environmental labeling products-Air cleaner, which went to effect as of January 1. Is health concern addressed in making this standard?

Zou: Indoor air quality standard was formulated under the guidance of NHFPC. MEP contributed in this process. The amendment needs to be conducted by NHFPC in collaboration with relevant State departments. I’m not aware of their plan on this. Air cleaner as a product, its quality standard should be formulated by quality inspection departments. The Technical requirement for environmental labeling products-Air cleaner, which was issued by MEP, is a standard for air cleaners with a better performance and more environment-friendly. The standard is referential and available on the Ministry’s website.

Moderator: Thank you for your support. The World Environment Day is approaching, with the theme of “Lucid Waters and Lush Mountains are Invaluable Assets”. We hope my friends at the media circle take this opportunity, raise the people’s environmental awareness and encourage public participation in environmental protection. Thank you.

(This English version is for your reference only.In case any discrepancy exists between the Chinese and English context, the Chinese version shall prevail.)

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