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Environmental Improvements Help Reinforce the Government's Legitimacy

An important component of reform was taking China's increasingly dire environmental problems seriously, instead of trying to cover them up. By the early 2010s, the central government was already seeing worsening environmental conditions as a threat to party legitimacy that deserved serious attention, rather than a problem that could be hidden by economic growth. This realization, along with some early successes on the anticorruption front, compelled the central government to take stringent steps to curb the worst offenders.

One place to make some immediate gains was in better enforcement of existing regulations. In the late 2010s, a scandal erupted when several massive algae blooms in one of China's most-important lakes rendered water undrinkable for weeks. Bowing to public pressure, the central government announced immediate actions to more rigorously enforce water discharge. Although there was some skepticism, the additional inspectors and high fines remained in place after the initial scare had abated. Even more importantly, the central government allocated some of the new revenue from fines to the cities for cleanup efforts, creating an incentive to hold polluters accountable. This created a new constituency for reform: local leaders who benefited from the revenue source.

A second major initiative was the climate regulations that came into effect in 2020. This initiative had three broad components. First, it extended the carbon emission-trading markets that were established in 2013 in five pilot cities to the rest of the country. A third party evaluates reductions from these markets under a monitoring, reporting, and verification protocol. Second, it created a carbon tax. Although more opposition had been expected from the private sector, the pilot programs ran very smoothly, and a national consensus emerged that environmental protection was a key priority. Finally, the central government imposed an additional tax on gasoline to encourage a shift toward NEVs.

The central government took the bold step of making GHG emission reductions part of government officials' promotion criteria, which made provincial and city leaders take the pronouncement seriously. This had initially gone into effect in early 2015 (Kuhn, 2014), but, like many pronouncements from the central government, it took a little time to make the actual changes to enforce it. Seeing them in concert with the water enforcement, people gained confidence that the reforms might be serious. Evidence that people could see backed up the party's claims. The phrase "you can't fake a blue sky" was often quoted admiringly as proof that progress was under way (Kuhn, 2014).

The new climate regulations led to noticeable improvements in air quality as coal-fired power plants were closed down. Drivers who bought cars that met the new China VI pollution control standards5 received incentives in the form of lower registration fees (or, in those cities with auctions or lottery systems, a guaranteed registration). The combination of these measures reduced some of the smog hanging over cities.

Although the policies were important, the country was also fortunate that some of the more-dismal environmental predictions did not come to pass. Some had suggested, back in the 2010s, that the aquifer in the North China Plain might dry out if rainfall remained at historic lows. Climate change might have well aggravated the drought, but rainfall resumed normal levels and, at least for now, the aquifer can still supply drinking water to that region.

Also, although much of coastal China was and is vulnerable to sea-level rise and flooding, no such events have occurred in the past ten years. One typhoon blew in around 2020 and caused severe damage to some buildings, but this happened in a largely rural area. Some of the larger coastal cities have begun to take steps to limit building in flood plains, although progress is slow and many think that the coastal region remains at risk, regulation or not.

 
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