Soil contamination is an urgent problem that affects Chinese food production and the health of the population. After a period of heavy urbanisation and industrialisation throughout the 20th century, much of the country’s soil is now contaminated with heavy metals. It is difficult for authorities to determine exactly how much of the land is affected, but in 2013 China’s Ministry of Land and Resources revealed that approximately 3.3 million hectares – almost 20 per cent – of farmland was moderately polluted. The country not only has large amounts of polluted farmland, but also a number of brownfield sites (areas located near cities that were previously used for industry). The problem has been created by a number of factors, including: decades of poor fertiliser regulation; wastewater being used to irrigate the land; and the effects of urbanisation which have brought factories and city dwellers into close proximity.
At the end of August 2018, the Chinese Government enacted the Soil Pollution Prevention and Control Law. The law is China’s first piece of legislation to target soil pollution. It follows other environmental laws that China has introduced, including the Air Pollution Prevention and Control Law in 2015 and the Water Pollution Prevention and Control Law in 2017.
The Soil Pollution Prevention and Control Law takes a preventive approach to addressing the problem. The law has a chapter dedicated to the methods and approaches that government authorities and land users should take to guard against future soil pollution. For the soil pollution that already exists, the law sets out a series of risk management and remediation obligations that are the legal responsibility of land users and polluters.
Given the severity of China’s soil pollution, the Soil Pollution Prevention and Control Law is a necessary measure to control the risks associated with the contamination. The effectiveness of the law, however, largely depends on whether the government can meet the large cost of remediation. Estimates indicate that between 2016 and 2020, remediation costs will be as high as nine trillion yuan ($1.81 trillion). In the government’s 12th Five-year Plan (2011-15), only 30 billion yuan ($6.04 billion) was allocated to soil remediation in urban areas.
The new law provides for the creation of special funds, so that provincial governments have a source of capital to cover circumstances where it is difficult or impossible to identify polluters, who would normally pay for the cost of remediation. In these circumstances, many countries (including the United States) rely on a type of financing referred to as a remediation fund. Remediation funds are used in cases involving environmental damage and rely on a number of finance streams, including private investment. China is yet to establish such a fund.
The Soil Pollution Prevention and Control Law is due to come into effect on 1 January 2019. The Chinese Government may create a remediation fund once the law begins to operate. It is unclear, however, whether the new law and the creation of a remediation fund, will generate enough money to clean up the damage caused to the soil over the last century. China’s new pollution law is a necessary step, given the harm that contaminated soil is having on the population, but it remains to be seen whether the legislation is enough to restore Chinese soils.