Notes from the Field

China’s Environmental Protection Law Lays Groundwork for Greater Transparency

May 28, 2014

Last month, China passed sweeping revisions to its Environmental Protection Law that aim to take a tough stance against industrial polluters, imposing much stiffer fines and even allowing violators to be detained. It also permits civil society organizations to initiate public interest lawsuits on behalf of citizens. The new law, revised for the first time since it was issued in 1989 and set to take effect at the start of 2015, went through a decade-plus process of research, drafting, public consultation, and revision. It encapsulates China’s existing regulations on information disclosure and public participation, promoting increased transparency by requiring companies to disclose pollution data and holding government agencies responsible for disseminating information publicly.

China pollution

A power plant in Taizhou in coastal Jiangsu Province, one of China’s most developed areas. The city government has become increasingly open to the concept of environmental information disclosure. Photo/Flickr user Sheng Yong http://bit.ly/1itogkQ

These measures build on earlier requirements set by the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), which issued trial measures in 2008 authorizing public access to environmental information, and requiring local environmental agencies along with businesses to disclose information about environmental protection plans, environmental conditions, and environmental investigation results. Moreover, in 2013, the MEP issued additional requirements asking local environmental protection offices to take primary responsibility for actively disclosing environmental information through online platforms such as government websites or other government channels.

The Chinese government has initiated these actions as part of a wide range of protective regulations aimed at tackling the county’s severe environmental degradation brought on by its rapid economic growth over the last 30 years. The severity of the country’s air, water, and soil pollution prompted Prime Minister Li Keqiang to say in March that it was time for China to “declare war” against pollution. The new environmental law and these other environmental measures are major signs that the country is serious about addressing its pollution issues.

While these national-level regulations are encouraging, successful implementation and enforcement at the provincial and municipal levels have been more limited. Local environmental protection bureaus (EPBs) have themselves exhibited varying degrees of capacity and commitment. For example, in 2012, 55 out of 113 cities monitored by the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) in China failed to disclose pollutant emission data to the public as required by the 2008 measures. Still, EPBs are facing growing pressure to implement the regulations and to protect the environment generally, in part because of broader governance reforms on how officials are evaluated, promoted, or sanctioned in China. Environmental issues – not just economic development – are increasingly reflected in the performance evaluation for local officials as mandated under the “green requirements” adopted at the Third Plenary Session of the 18th CPC (Communist Party of China) Central Committee in November 2013. Their overall evaluation also includes how well they meet new carbon emission targets that came into effect in March 2011.

Despite increasing attention about information disclosure and growing regulations requiring it, information transparency remains at a fledgling stage in most Chinese cities. Local EPBs have expressed concern about the social impact of disclosing sensitive environmental information, while companies frequently say they withhold environmental information as a way to protect business interests and reputation. In addition, most local cities face the challenge of limited personnel, technical, and financial support as obstacles. Their situation is not the exception, according to recent research on local implementation of China’s environmental information disclosure policy. In general, there has been very limited guidance to local environmental officials on environmental information disclosure procedures, resulting in difficulties such as inadequate leadership attention to the issue, limited information sharing internally, lack of experience in dealing with public participation and supervision, and little incentive for local EPBs to promote information transparency. There are also some key differences by region and industry regarding information disclosure. More developed regions have done better in this regard.

One example is Taizhou in coastal Jiangsu Province, which is located in one of China’s most developed areas. The city government has become increasingly open to the concept of environmental information disclosure, and in 2010 participated in a World Bank “green watch” program, which aimed to improve companies’ environmental performance and reduce discharge of pollutants by publicly rating them. After witnessing the positive effect of public rankings on corporate environmental behavior, the city was motivated to increase its environmental transparency programs. The city’s website features information regarding environmental protection policies and regulations though there is limited disclosure about emissions data. For example, Taizhou does not publicize data on enterprises’ waste gas/water emissions. However, Taizhou officials say they are now ready and willing to take the next step of adopting systematic mechanisms such as a comprehensive online platform to disclose and publicize environmental information (including ratings) to further improve environmental performance.

Meanwhile, Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou province in southwestern China, is in a less developed region but has witnessed more and more factories moving into the area because of China’s “Go West” national strategy designed to develop the western part of the country. The local government is actively working on improving its environmental information disclosure system in order to protect the environment. In July 2013, city officials detailed what information should be publicized along with disclosure procedures. Environment-related information such as policies, regulations, and the Air Quality Index is regularly updated on the local government’s website. The city government is also working on developing an online platform for nationally monitored enterprises to publicize pollutant information. However, despite these promising actions, environmental information disclosure by businesses in Guiyang is still insufficient. Information about companies’ internal environmental protection policies or pollutant discharge data is usually unavailable.

The Asia Foundation is currently working with some Chinese cities on a pilot project aimed at improving the awareness and understanding of local environmental bureaus and businesses about legal regulations on disclosure of key environmental data. The project also works to foster more constructive collaboration between the government, civil society organizations, and businesses to engage the public in environmental protection.

Although the national focus on environmental protection is promising, more could be done at the local level, such as learning from best-practice EPBs, encouraging NGO engagement, and enhancing cooperation among environmental protection bureaus. China’s moves to strengthen its environmental protection laws and regulations are ambitious and necessary, but effective implementation and enforcement at the local level will be key to making substantive changes.

Huang Zhen is The Asia Foundation’s environment program officer in Beijing. She can be reached at huangzhen@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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