China’s new environmental protection law is not enough without robust implementation mechanisms, accountability regimes and institutional arrangements. This report for the science journal Nature identifies four gaps that will cause challenges for the new law.
Bo Zhang is a research fellow at the Information Center, Ministry of Environmental Protection, China. Cong Cao is associate professor and reader at the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham, UK.
On 1 January, a new environmental protection law (EPL) took effect in China. It is the nation’s first attempt to harmonize economic and social development with environmental protection.
The EPL is perceived as the most progressive and stringent law in the history of environmental protection in China. It details harsher penalties for environmental offences — for example, for acts of tampering and falsifying data, discharging pollutants covertly and evading supervision. It contains provisions for tackling pollution, raising public awareness and protecting whistle-blowers. It places more responsibility and accountability on local governments and law-enforcement agencies and sets higher standards for enterprises.
The extract below on the third gap in China’s EPL the authors identify is one Probe International is particularly in support of addressing (and one we discuss at length in Saving China’s Environment: Give Power to the People):
Third, despite increasingly damaging pollution in China, the new EPL fails to acknowledge citizens’ basic right to an environment fit for life. So far, 149 developed and developing countries, including Russia, South Korea and the Philippines, have acknowledged in their constitutions a substantial right to environmental quality. Although China’s new law clearly gives citizens, civic groups and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) the right to obtain environmental information and to participate in environmental governance, these parties (with the exception of NGOs that fulfil certain criteria) are not allowed to bring lawsuits against the government if there are, for example, serious lapses in air or water quality. A public environmental litigation system is needed to provide cost-effective redress for those affected.
From Saving China’s Environment: Give Power to the People
Many commentators see China’s massive population and its desire to pursue profits and to raise their standard of living as one of the gravest threats, not only to the Chinese environment, but to the global environment too. I don’t see them that way at all. Instead, I see the Chinese government as the largest threat and the citizenry as the world’s largest group of front-line defenders of the environment.
Remember, for every national or global environmental threat – whether it is to air, water, or land – there will be local victims who feel the consequences first and most painfully.
Give Chinese citizens the right to know, the legal and political tools, and the security to exercise their rights and to hold accountable those who would destroy their environment, and costly investments will be rejected and sustainable investments favoured. And the innovation that will occur as Chinese citizens invest to meet each other’s needs, in an economy governed by the rule of law, will be truly awesome.