The mainland’s Ministry of Environmental Protection has announced a restructuring that could see the agency shift away from hitting largely meaningless targets towards exercising more comprehensive governance.

The streamlining came as

the new five-year plan put an emphasis on improving the quality of the environment, the ministry said.

With the overhaul, the divisions overseeing pollution prevention and control over total emissions would be reconfigured into three arms tackling air, water and soil pollution, the statement read.

Chen Jining, an environmental scientist by training, took over the ministry last year amid expectations he would turn it into one that could effect substantial change. Official statistics show that significant cuts in major air pollutants such as sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxygen, as well as major water pollutants, have been achieved since environmental targets became a mandatory part of every five-year plan since 2006.

At that time, the target-oriented mechanism was hailed as the solution to curb pollution, with some experts predicting a “turning point” for the mainland’s environment was just around the corner. Towards that end, the ministry created the total emission control department in 2010 to oversee meeting the targets.

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But the system has fallen under increasing criticism as unreliable. Factories would either illegally discharge pollutants by letting treatment facilities sit idle, or local authorities would simply fabricate emission figures, according to some local environmental officials.

The problem was compounded by lax supervision and light punishment for violaters. The ministry began to admit to such problems over the past year, saying a better approach to environmental governance was needed and it should respond more quickly to public concerns.

“Improvements in environmental quality should be the only gauge for our environmental protection efforts,” Pan Yue, the deputy environmental minister said in an interview with Xinhua last year.

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The ministry said the current restructuring plan was approved by the central government in February last year, but additional deliberation on the details took another year. “In some sense, the ministry’s restructuring would put an end to the old target-based system, as it proved invalid after 10-year practice,” a source said, asking not to be identified.

Greenpeace campaigner Li Shuo applauded the move, saying: “This is a move towards the right direction … We hope the dedication of specific departments to address air, water, and soil pollution can strengthen the capacity of environmental regulator and speed up China’s process of cleaning up.”