The State Council recently announced new Guidelines for pilot programs for trading emissions permits to reduce air and water pollution.

Key pollutants to be traded under the pilot programs include sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide in the air, and chemical oxygen demand and ammonia nitrogen in wastewater. Speaking of these pollutants, Huang Xiaozeng, Deputy Head of the Pollution Emission Control Department of the Environmental Protection Ministry, said earlier this year that “all kinds of measures will be implemented to ensure the tough targets are met.”

Earlier pilots had begun in 2007, with areas now or soon running pilot trading programs for emissions permits including Tianjin, Hebei province, the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, and the provinces of Shanxi, Hunan, Guangdong, Qinghai, and Fujian. Under the Guidelines new pilot regions must establish mechanisms for the purchase and trading of emissions by 2017, which is then expected to lay a foundation for the program to be rolled out nationwide.

According to the Ministry of Environmental Protection’s website, during the past year, on Shanxi’s provincial emissions permit trading system alone, over $60 million in emissions permits have been traded between 400 companies. Regions may apply the permits to the pollutants that affect them most, with revenues intended to be provided to local governments to further fund pollution control.

According to the recent State Council statement, “trading of emissions rights must be done in a voluntary, fair and environment-oriented way and trading prices will be decided by the buyer and the seller.” Additionally, “the pilots aim to allow the market to play a decisive role in resources allocation, encourage firms to actively cut pollutant discharges, speed up industrial restructuring and clean the environment.”

The State Council statement, though, differs from a statement offered by Ma Zhong, the Dean of the School of Environment and Natural Resources, at Renmin University, in Beijing, to Reuters. “Emission trading in China is not strictly a market activity and it is more like paying for emitting. It is [currently] just a few regions running some test trading.”

Businesses with interests in China, and especially in these pilot trading program areas, may wish to fully investigate and explore their options when dealing with facility and process permitting requirements. The new Guidelines do create a scheme where facilities will be required to pay for their emissions, but doing so will be necessary to avoid even higher potential penalties for not having the required emissions permits. In the meantime, facilities that participate in the emissions trading permits program will be taking steps toward helping to clean the environment.