By Lindsey Li
Lindsey Li is a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania and an associate editor of the Penn Undergraduate Law Journal.
With pollution levels exceeding those of the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain, China’s large cities have famously found themselves sacrificing the environment for economic growth over the past quarter century. In fact, the US nonprofit Berkeley Earth found that eight out of ten Chinese are regularly exposed to pollution levels that far surpass levels deemed safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 
However, the skies may be blue once again.
Throughout the past year, Chinese official sources have spoken of improved air quality. While these claims by themselves, like China’s oft-question economic data, have reason to be doubted by themselves, US embassy readings have corroborated them. It is important to note that it is not the small improvement itself this year that is worth revelation but the long term upward trend that has resulted from government initiatives to lower pollution that deserves attention, implying the nationwide effort to minimize pollution over the coming years.  Specifically, it merited enough attention at a Communist Party plenum late October 2015 for high ranking government officials to, in addition to the plenum’s usual purpose of determining China’s economic policy, direct environmental policy for the next five years. Such innovations, including, technological innovation, entrepreneurship, abolition of the one-child policy, and lowering emissions of pollutants while “removing the link between pollution and economic growth,” are all goals for a brighter future. 
That last objective, removing the link between pollution and economic growth, may be the most important goal that China’s government pursues between now and 2020. As the world watches the slowing economic growth of the East Asian powerhouse, China’s performance on the world stage as both an economic and environmental leader will become a critical indicator of the warmth of global reception to greener policies. This is especially crucial in the light of the recently solidified Trans-Pacific Partnership, an agreement that includes the United States, Vietnam, Canada, Chile, Australia, and a multitude of other South Asian countries that comprise 40% of the world economy, which is meant to enhance labor and environmental protections and, according to Jackie Calmes of the New York Times, counter China, which is not part of the agreement. 
Thus, the Chinese government’s recent amendment of the country’s environmental protection law, the first of its kind in twenty-five years which came into effect on January 1, 2015, was understandably met with skepticism.  Bo Zhang and Cong Cao of Nature have found four main gaps in China’s new environmental law. The new law is limited and can be overruled by other laws already on the books and the byzantine bureaucracy of China’s environmental administration will make the law difficult to enforce. Furthermore, even if the law can overcome these hurdles, it could be foiled by conflicts of interest. Lastly, despite the law’s allowance of citizens, civic groups, and NGOs to request environmental information and participate in environmental decision-making, these groups-- barring just a few NGOs who meet strict criteria-- cannot bring lawsuits against the government for ruptures in, for example, the quality of water or air. 
Despite great uncertainty in the practical implications of this law, recent court results may suggest a genuine upswing in China’s environmental consciousness. On October 29, 2015, two NGOs emerged victorious in an environmental damage lawsuit against a quarry in Fujian in East China. Many believe this to be a landmark case made possible by the new law. Marked as the “first-ever public-interest litigation” since the law took effect, the case coaxes the first ray of sunshine behind the smog-filled sky and China’s new green policy ultimately gives the globe a glimpse of the gold on the other side of the rainbow. 
 Ferris, Robert. “China’s air pollution far worse than thought: Study.” CNBC. August 18, 2015. Accessed November 9, 2015. http://www.cnbc.com/2015/08/18/china-air-pollution-far-worse-than-thought-study.html
 Watt, Louise. “China’s gray smog has a blue lining: air improves this year.” CNS News. November 12, 2015. Accessed November 12, 2015. http://www.cnsnews.com/news/article/chinas-gray-smog-has-blue-lining-air-improves-year
 Liu, Qin. “China top officials outline greener five year plan”. Climate Home. October 30, 2015. Accessed November 12, 2015.
 Calmes, Jackie. “Trans-Pacific Partnership Text Released, Waving Green Flag for Debate”. The New York Times. November 5, 2015. Accessed November 12, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/06/business/international/trans-pacific-trade-deal-tpp-vietnam-labor-rights.html?_r=2
 Kaiman, Jonathan. “China strengthens environmental laws”. The Guardian. April 25, 2014 Accessed November 12, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/apr/25/china-strengthens-environmental-laws-polluting-factories
 Zhang, Bo and Cao, Cong. “Policy: Four gaps in China’s new environmental law.” Nature: International Weekly Journal of Science. January 21, 2015. Accessed November 12, 2015. http://www.nature.com/news/policy-four-gaps-in-china-s-new-environmental-law-1.16736
 Zheng, Jinran. “Green victory in court seen as setting trend.” China Daily. October 30, 2015. Accessed November 12, 2015. http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2015-10/30/content_22313303.htm
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons User Kentaro IEMOTO
The opinions and views expressed through this publication are the opinions of the designated authors and do not reflect the opinions or views of the Penn Undergraduate Law Journal, our staff, or our clients.