China's Environmental Law Moves Forward

I was in Beijing last week for a series of meetings with our China team.  Fifteen years ago, NRDC was the first international environmental NGO to establish a program on clean energy issues in China.  Today, we have an office in Beijing with more than 25 staff focusing on a range of energy and environmental issues. 

As China experts will tell you, one of the great challenges in Chinese environmental protection is the need to develop stronger environmental laws and policies, as well as the mechanisms to enforce them. 

These are issues that have been central to NRDC's work in the U.S. for 40 years.  Building on this experience, we established a program to work with China to encourage better implementation of environmental laws several years ago (we were the first international NGO to do so).  We have worked with government agencies to draft stronger legislation, collaborated with Chinese universities and think tanks to develop proposals for environmental policy reform, and organized capacity-building workshops for local-level environmental officials, environmental groups, judges, lawyers, and journalists. 

In the U.S., the environmental law revolution that began in the early 1970s was critical to cleaning up the environment.  But perhaps even more important have been the mechanisms to make sure these laws are implemented in practice--and the dedication of citizen groups, government agencies and other stakeholders to make sure they are used effectively. 

A recent expose in the New York Times revealed just how critical strong enforcement is. The article explained that 40 years after Congress passed the Clean Water Act, violations of the law have risen steadily in recent years, yet many violators go unpunished. The results are grave: Americans are exposed to toxins that cause cancer and other serious illnesses. The article reminds us that even with good laws on the books, we must remain vigilant. That is true in America, and it is true in China, as well.

During my trip this past week, I learned about the tremendous amount of work going on in China, not just within the government, but also from the Chinese public to develop better environmental laws and put in place the systems that will drive better implementation.  It has been remarkable to see. 

For example, on Thursday we paid a visit to China's Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP).  We have been working with MEP and other bureaus for more than a year on the latest amendment to the Atmospheric Pollution Prevention and Control Law -China's "Clean Air Act." 

Air pollution in China remains a serious challenge, and China is exploring a wide range of new ways to deal with the problem, including regional air pollution mechanisms, expanded permitting, stronger enforcement provisions and tougher controls on vehicle emissions. 

We also learned about proposals to incorporate pollution reduction goals in China's 12th Five-Year Plan focused on a number of highly-polluting industrial sectors (power, cement, iron-steel, etc.) and key pollutants (fine particulates, mercury, volatile organic compounds, etc.). 

Of course, the best laws and policies are meaningless without good implementation.  On Thursday night, I had the chance to have dinner with some of China's top environmentalists who are working on-the-ground to bring about better implementation and enforcement of environmental laws. 

Ma Jun, one of China's best-known environmentalists, talked to me about his work to make transparency about emissions of pollutants the norm in China.  We recently worked with Ma Jun on a Pollution Information Transparency Index, an evaluation of the degree of environmental transparency in 113 Chinese cities (see here). 

I also talked with our old friend Professor Wang Canfa, China's top environmental litigator.  He was our first partner in China in the environmental law area, and he is working as hard as ever to create environmental rule of law in China.  We have been working together to promote implementation of China's new environmental courts and to train Chinese lawyers and judges in environmental law. 

Li Bo, the director of Friends of Nature - China's first environmental NGO, described to me his efforts to build a nationwide membership of environmentalists that can more effectively engage in local efforts at environmental protection.  Some of these members are holding local companies accountable for their pollution and pressing for accurate disclosure of pollution levels.

We also met with Wang Yongchen, Global Village of Beijing, iCET and others who are taking the initiative to improve China's environment.

These are the types of efforts that will drive better implementation of environmental laws, and it is truly remarkable to see the amount of good work going on.  Building a strong, enforceable framework for environmental law is essential to China's battle with "traditional" pollution and will be critical as China moves forward to address the challenges of climate change.  The glimpse I had at China's efforts in this regard was impressive.  If China continues to grow and expand these efforts, it has the potential to make a big difference for China's environment and for the entire world.

You can read more about these issues at NRDC's Greenlaw blog, our bilingual blog focused on discussion of China's environmental law, policy and civil society.