Tsinghua University president Chen Jining is tipped to lead China's environment ministry. Credit: Greg Baker/AFP/Getty

The president of Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University has got the nod to become party chief of China's environmental-protection ministry. Observers say the move puts environmental scientist Chen Jining in line to become the next environmental-protection minister, a post that some call the most fraught in the Chinese government.

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If Chen is appointed at the next meeting of the National People's Congress in March, he will bring his research experience to an agency that has been struggling to clean up air, water and soil pollution on an unparalleled scale.

“A Chinese public eager to breathe freely is calling for someone who 'gets' the environment and can deliver results,” says Ma Tianjie, programme director for mainland China at Greenpeace East Asia in Beijing. “With such public expectation, this could easily become the most challenging cabinet position in China.” He adds that Chen is the right choice for the minister job.

Neuroscientist Lu Bai, executive vice-dean of Tsinghua's medical school, agrees: Chen “has vision, he has the guts to get things done, and he can inspire others to follow his lead”, he says.

Changing priorities

Over the past three decades, China has pushed for economic development but failed to take environmental problems seriously, especially at the local-government level. That attitude seemed to be changing in 2008, when an environmental-protection agency was upgraded to the Ministry of Environmental Protection. Since then, national leaders have been increasingly strident in their calls to reduce pollution. This month, a new environmental-protection law went into effect, tightening pollution standards, putting in place measures to make local governments more accountable, increasing penalties for misrepresenting data, and giving citizens more legal avenues to report polluters.

But many are sceptical. During the ten years that the ministry was led by Zhou Shengxian, who will be stepping down, environmental regulations were ignored or were enforced with only tiny fines, and it is not clear that the new law will change that. It has loopholes, as was pointed out in a Nature Comment1 by Cao Cong, who specializes in science and technology policy at the University of Nottingham, UK, and Zhang Bo, a research fellow at the ministry’s Information Center. The law does not clarify the lines of authority between competing government agencies over crucial things such as water use, and it gives the ministry insufficient resources and legislative authority to force local environment bureaux to enforce the regulations. It contains no policies aimed at lowering carbon emissions, and does not cover a carbon tax currently being planned. Air-pollution indices in Beijing, Shanghai and elsewhere still regularly shoot up to hazardous levels.

Some observers hope that Chen will be the right person to give the system a jolt. As an outsider to the ministry who is not burdened with responsibility for the current state of environmental management, Chen “can bring new and fresh ideas”, says Lu Yonglong, deputy director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Research Center for Eco-Environmental Science in Beijing.

Zhang says that Chen’s decade of experience in environmental management overseas — during which he earned a doctorate in environmental systems analysis from Imperial College London — “gives him the edge” as a leader. “China needs to learn from the experiences of developed countries in environmental protection,” says Zhang.

A breath of fresh air

But Cao worries about Chen's lack of government experience: “University president and minister require two completely different skill sets.” Still, Cao says, Chen will be helped by his tight connections with the Communist Party, including links with President Xi Jinping, who graduated from Tsinghua.

Most experts agree that Chen’s task will be straightforward, if not simple — to enforce the new law and assert the power of the ministry, especially in the face of resistance from local environmental-protection boards that are conflicted by their ties with local industry. However, Zhang suggests a list of goals for a strengthened ministry, including unified registration of pollution sources, introduction of pollution-discharge permits and the increased use of 'big data' in environmental management and ecological governance.

Chen “can quickly make significant changes if he makes a few simple but difficult choices, that is, to erase the pollution by quickly cutting off the emissions of air, water and soil pollution”, says Wei-xian Zhang, an expert in environmental remediation at Tongji University in Shanghai. “This is not rocket science. It has been proved beyond any doubt during the 2008 Beijing Olympics and last year's APEC [Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation] summit,” he says, pointing to examples in which the government shut down businesses and construction for short-term gains in air quality. “To improve China's environmental quality, we cannot give the polluters free rides any more.”

Temporarily shutting down businesses, however, led them to ramp up production — and pollution — just before the events. Cao says that a test of whether the government is serious about long-term solutions rather than short-term spectacles could come as early as next year, when the Group of 20 (G20) nations meet in Beijing. “It would be unacceptable if the government adopted similar measures then,” says Cao. “The world will be watching.”