President Xi has announced the creation of a new environmental bureau to oversee China’s state-owned natural resources. Establishment of the new bureau is one of the most notable outcomes of the recent meeting of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party, and follows Xi’s pronouncement that building an “ecological civilization” in his country is necessary for the continued development of the Chinese people.

Currently, China’s natural resources are administered by a set of localized bureaus, which oversee natural resource assets without a centralized national monitor. Local governments are responsible for staffing and funding these bureaus, so economic agendas and industrial development have directed local environmental efforts for years. Frequently, local governments have stripped the protection bureaus of the ability to impose penalties or otherwise enforce environmental compliance measures. And even if the bureaus receive staff and funding, regional and local needs are generally at odds, often causing untimely and frustrating backlogs regarding the uses of resources and land. Without national coordination, even the best-intentioned regulators working for these bureaus have struggled to implement environmental policies.

The lack of environmental oversight has been particularly apparent since a new environmental protection law (EPL) took effect in China two years ago. The EPL places significant responsibility on local governments and law enforcement agencies to interpret and implement the country’s progressive environmental protections — a task that bureaus have found difficult to perform due to the competing attention demanded by local economic interests. President Xi’s announcement signals a renewed effort to improve the fragmented political infrastructure of environmental governance in China. If China is to achieve lasting and meaningful environmental reform, the country will need accountable, stable institutional arrangements. This new environmental agency is therefore likely to play a major role in the success of major environmental initiatives unfolding now, including plans for permitting schemes, and enforcement of the EPL – though it remains to be seen if the bureau will ultimately be able to achieve uniformity in enforcement of the EPL and related environmental laws across the country.

Read more on the development of China’s environmental policy:

China Encourages Green Finance to Meet Clean Development Goals

President Xi Jinping Pledges Sustainable Development to Build a “Beautiful china”

China’s War on Pollution: Measuring the Economic Impact

Proposed Draft Legislation Clamps Down on Soil Pollution in China

Will Tougher Environmental Laws Mean Measurable Change for Pollution in China?

U.S. Withdrawal from Paris Agreement Creates an Opening for China to Lead

This post was prepared with the assistance of Tegan Creedy in the London office of Latham & Watkins.