Progress in Improving Transparency in Environmental Protection and Climate Change in China

On April 1st I was invited to testify on the subject of transparency in environmental protection and climate change in China at a roundtable discussion for the Congressional Executive Commission on China. The purpose of the hearing was to provide an honest assessment of the current state of transparency in environmental protection, energy and climate change in China. 

I was joined on the panel by David Gordon of Pacific Environment, Deborah Seligsohn of the World Resources Institute, and Michael Wara of Stanford University. We discussed the progress that China has made on this front in recent years, as well as the remaining gaps that sometimes prevent scientists, the Chinese public, NGOs, CDM project investors, and the international community from accessing information on environmental protection, energy, and climate change.

I made three key points in my testimony on the status of environmental transparency in China:

  • In recent years, China has made a number of important moves towards greater environmental transparency. China’s 2008 Open Government Information Regulations, the country’s first national regulations on freedom of information, were a landmark for a country not known for a tradition of information disclosure.  The Ministry of Environmental Protection has been one of the strongest supporters of transparency measures because it recognizes these measures as an important tool for environmental protection. The Environmental Information Disclosure Measures it issued set clear obligations for environmental protection departments and certain enterprises throughout China to disclose environmental information to the public.
  • Implementation of these measures has been uneven and there is still much work to do, especially when it comes to clarifying vague regulations and holding local officials accountable for failing to comply. Nevertheless, important progress has been made, as NRDC and the Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs found in our study assessing the first year of implementation of the environmental information disclosure measures in 113 cities across China.  Cities like Wuhan, Shanghai, Ningbo, Weihai and Beijing are meeting their information disclosure requirements in a variety of innovative ways, from websites with searchable emissions data for a given day or time period, to an online “Call Center” database with real-time videos of pollution facilities. The Supreme People’s Court has released a draft judicial interpretation (Chinese) on open information to clarify the regulations and solicited public comments on the interpretation. It remains to be seen how this will play out, but we are hopeful that the interpretation when it is ultimately released will provide a boost to information disclosure.
  • The main reason to believe that the trend towards greater transparency will continue is that transparency is viewed by many within China as an effective tool for solving serious environmental and energy challenges. Chinese citizens want to know more about the pollution in their communities. Consumers and multinational buyers are increasingly eager to know the environmental impacts of the products they purchase. And Chinese government leaders at both the central and provincial government levels need access to accurate and timely information to implement their climate, energy and pollution targets.

I also made four recommendations for how the United States can work with China to improve environmental and energy information disclosure in a number of areas of mutual interest:

  • China will need assistance as it builds up its capacity and administrative structures to handle greater environmental information disclosure. US-China exchanges on developing and refining the laws, rules and systems for environmental information disclosure can provide an invaluable boost to China’s capacity-building efforts.
  • The U.S. and China are already engaged in a number of international partnerships and collaborations on environmental protection, pollution reduction, and energy efficiency. All of these can be made more effective by improving environmental and energy information by developing greater capacity to generate, capture, and distribute such information.
  • Given the increasing demand by U.S. consumers and businesses for information on the environmental impact of the products they purchase, and given the tremendous interdependence of the U.S. and China in international trade, there is significant space for international collaboration on approaches to “greening” corporate supply chains. This benefits consumers, gives Chinese environmental enforcement authorities the support of powerful business allies, and ultimately helps to bring about a cleaner environment in China.
  • The U.S. and China are both exploring the best approaches to monitoring and inventorying their greenhouse gas emissions. Technical, non-political exchanges on approaches to improving the capacity and methodologies related to greenhouse gas emissions can serve to build trust and solve real technical challenges facing both countries in the battle to combat climate change.

Environmental transparency is at a turning point now in China. We have seen some early positive impact from greater transparency regulations, and municipalities and departments throughout China have already shown a wide variety of best practices. Nonetheless, it is the choices that will be made on the ground in China over the next few years that will make the difference between a transparency system that truly helps China achieve its environmental and climate change objectives or a system that exists mainly in the law books, but not in practice. To this aim, China’s citizens and businesses have a crucial role to play in continuing to foster transparency and open information in the country. The international community also has a key role to play - international companies must live up to their green pledges, and consumers can continue demanding cleaner products that are better for their health and that minimize the impact on the environment.

The full transcript of the hearing will be available on the CECC website in the next few weeks.