Eight municipal governments in northeast Liaoning province have together received 54.2 million yuan (US$ 8.9 million) in fines for failing to reach air quality standards – the first time a provincial government has imposed financial penalties on lower-level governments for pollution. The largest fine, of 34.6 million yuan (US$ 5.6 million), was given to Shenyang, the provincial capital.
The fines were based on a regulation passed last year by Liaoning’s provincial environmental authority. According to the regulation, Liaoning’s 14 cities will be evaluated on levels of pollutants, including PM10 (particles less than 10 micrometres in diameter), sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide; cities failing the national air quality standard will be fined.
Liaoning’s fines came amid growing public concerns over the worsening smog which at one point blanketed more than 100 cities across China.
Professor Mol at Renmin University told chinadialogue that the fine was “exceptional” and “can be seen as an indication that implementation of environmental policies is getting more serious.”
“Strong fines help in enhancing implementation by lower level governments of national and provincial environmental policies,” Professor Mol added.
At Greenpeace East Asia, campaigner Li Shuo also noted that this time the fine was imposed on the municipal government rather than the industry. “This can hopefully generate some pressure on the cities to act further,” he told chinadialogue.
“Something is better than nothing. A meaningful fine is a step in the right direction,” commented Steve Tsang, the director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham. Nevertheless, Professor Tsang said that if the fine is modest compared to the cost saving involved in polluting, the effect of the fine will be minimal.
Tim Forsyth, an environmental policy expert at the London School of Economics and Political Science, told chinadialogue that he feared the fine might be a “demonstration rather than actual action.”
“There are examples of similar fines in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam in the late 90s and 00s, which were considered to be more about the central government trying to indicate to outside donors that they were trying to control the situation,” Dr Forsyth said.
Dr Forsyth’s caution was echoed by Steve Tsang. “Real change can only happen with a change in attitude and acceptance of the importance of environmental protection. A fine will not deliver that,” he said.
Professor Mol, a longtime keen advocate for openness, suggested that while fines can help implementation, it is transparency and information disclosure that will truly hold local governments accountable. “The direct information Chinese citizens can now collect on their mobile phone on air pollution quality puts direct pressure on local policy makers to improve air quality.”
However, whilst the implications of the fines are still being debated, other provinces show no signs of following Liaoning’s lead. Li Shuo said he had not heard of measures being adopted by other provinces.