The environment needs public participation

China’s environmental challenge will only be met through public participation in decision-making, says Pan Yue. Enhanced transparency and legal reform can help strengthen a society facing acute pressure on resources.

In China, environmental protection is an increasingly pressing issue. Not only are pollution and ecological degradation becoming ever more serious, but also people are more and more unsatisfied about the situation. The speed with which we are polluting the environment far outstrips our efforts to clean it up. Why is this? China has a large population but few resources, and our production and consumption methods are too out of date. But at the root of the problem lies a more significant cause — the lack of public participation in China.

The initial motivation for the world environmental protection movement came from the public, without their participation it would not exist.

In 1962, the US marine biologist Rachel Carson published her landmark book, Silent Spring, which focused on the environmental and human costs of pesticide use. This was a starting point in the development of environmental protection. On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans took part in environmental demonstrations across the US. “Earth Day” is still celebrated on that date, and was a major event in the development of modern environmental participation.

Take Japan as an example; although the country faces a greater pressure on resources than China, it is a world leader in protecting the environment. Visitors to Japan in recent years are invariably impressed by the country’s clean environment. But Japan also experienced the serious social consequences of pollution midway through the last century, when it underwent large-scale industrialisation. In the 1960s, Japanese victims of pollution first brought lawsuits against the companies responsible for environmental degradation. Japan’s media began to investigate and report on environmental accidents. In many places, grass-roots environmental groups were founded to combat polluting industries. By 1970, 45% of Japanese citizens opposed economic development that did not take environmental protection into account, overwhelming the 33% who polled in favour of unrestricted economic growth. Electoral support for Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) declined from 58% to 48% as a result.

Broad public participation forced both the LDP and the Diet to take notice of the environmental and social effects of pollution. In 1967, Japan issued the Basic Law for Environmental Pollution Control, and enacted the Law for the Compensation of Pollution-Related Health Injuries in 1973. A series of other environmental rules and regulations were put into place in the following years. In particular, the Basic Law for the Recycling–based Society employs the concept of “environmental culture” to promote public awareness of environmental protection and its moral value. The law promotes the use of new energy sources and compulsory limits on the consumption of natural resources. It not only regulates waste output but also encourages recycling and the safe disposal of non-recyclable waste. In the past 10 years, Japan has become a recycling-based society which strikes a balance between environmental protection and economic growth. Their example can show us that resolving the problems of pollution needs both governmental and citizen engagement, and that public participation and a democratic legal system are important factors in environmental protection.

In China, the major problem is that environmental protection laws are not strictly observed and implemented due to a lack of democratic legal mechanisms for public participation. As early as 1978, the government stated clearly that where serious pollution is occurring, if no measures are put in place to improve this for a long time, it will be established who is personally responsible, and the enterprise in question will be shut down. Financial penalties are also to be applied and legal action taken in serious cases. But in the past 20 years, how many polluters — businesspeople or officials — have ever been penalised? How many government policies that have caused pollution and ecological damage have ever been corrected? And to what extent are we following the sustainable development strategy that was put forward in 1992?

Guided by a traditional model of development, many in government and business are devoted to short-term profit, and officials are solely motivated by the prospect of an increase in GDP. None of them pay adequate attention to environmental protection. Frequently we hear people say that Chinese living standards are too low and that the most urgent thing is to develop the economy. They hold that environmental protection should be an issue of secondary importance. But in fact, China is the last country that can hold this view. The country has too many people and few natural resources; China does not have the capacity to take on this burden. The sustainable development model is the only model of development for China. We must set in place a series of practical policies and regulations, call on citizens to participate in the environmental protection movement and strengthen our democratic and legal systems. Otherwise, sustainable development will become a mere slogan.

But how can we promote public participation in environmental protection?

First of all, we must understand clearly that public participation is the right and interest of the people endowed by law. The government has the obligation to respond to and to protect this right. Public participation is not a charitable measure offered to the public by the government. Nor is it the old model of a mass movement driven by the government. During wartime, the Party needed to mobilise the masses to fight for their rights. But nowadays, the Party has an administrative role, to govern the country by means of the law. Any country governed by law has to recognise and protect the rights of the people. Involving public participation in environmental protection should be an aspect by which to evaluate political performance; and should be based on the principles of the Party serving the public and the administration serving the people. It is a useful trial for the construction of socialist democracy and a demonstration of the advantages of the socialist system.

Secondly, environmental information must be made freely available. Disclosure is a tool for environmental management. We should recognise the public’s right to be informed about and to criticise environmental issues. By increasing the transparency of environmental information, the force of public opinion can put pressure on those who destroy the environment. In 1998, 35 countries from Europe and central Asia signed the Aarhus Convention in Demark, which ensure the public’s right to be informed about environmental issues. Now 40 countries have joined the Convention. China’s government has made many efforts to promote the disclosure of environmental information, including the publication of an annual environment report, a monthly report on the water quality of major rivers and a daily report on air quality. The mass media are also working hard on reporting environmental incidents. But the problem remains that it is very difficult for individuals to obtain environmental information from businesses or government. Where should the public turn for such information? Who can provide it? There is a lack of communication between the government and the public. Regulations on the disclosure of environmental information are the way to ensure the public’s right to be informed.

Thirdly, we must democratise decision-making on environmental issues. China’s Environmental Protection Law of 1989 states: “All units and individuals shall have the obligation to protect the environment and shall have the right to report on or file charges against units or individuals that cause pollution or damage to the environment.” The Law on Evaluation of Environmental Effects, implemented on September 1 2003, is of great significance. It stipulates that before approving any project that may affect the environment, the authorities must hold consultative meetings and public hearings to collect opinions from relevant organisations, experts and the public. The “environment interests” of Chinese citizens have, for the first time, been enshrined in law. The people have the right to know, to understand and to supervise public policy related to their environment. It also means that anyone preventing people from taking part in the decision-making process is breaking the law. But despite this, details of the conditions and procedures for public participation have not yet been clearly stipulated. That is to say, faced with a specific problem, the public still does not know how to participate. For example, some of the plans for China’s dam projects have raised many people’s concerns. But the expression of this concern is has been limited to a few articles published on the internet and meetings among experts. The public cannot find a way to participate. In the end, they have to turn their worries and complaints into legal appeals. We must, therefore, produce clear procedures for public participation in decision-making about large environmental projects.  

The fourth key is public-interest environment litigation. This would mean that all citizens, communities, and government offices could bring a lawsuit to the national judiciary in their own name, on behalf of the wider public. Our current environmental law states that only the victims of environmental incidents have the right to bring such a lawsuit, and the case is regarded as a civil action. Since environmental rights do not only relate to individuals but also are the concern of wider society, they should be regarded as in the public interest, as they are in European and US environmental law. Because environmental lawsuits often involve very technical issues, those countries have put measures in place that help reduce the cost of environmental lawsuits for the public, and can help with technical knowledge. In order to strengthen China’s environmental law, we must enlarge the scope of those who can bring environmental lawsuits to include government environmental bodies, environmental protection organisations and the public.

Finally, we must strengthen our cooperation with environmental NGOs. The majority of China’s environmental NGOs, except for a very small number who take an extreme western environmentalist line without considering the country’s special characteristics, are positive and healthy, especially the youth groups who are volunteering for the environment. They love their country and are eager to make a contribution to society. They are promoting conservation out of concern for the environment. The government should give direction and support to these organisations. For example, the government can provide groups with professional training; build platforms for communication with the public; organise activities that involve environmental groups and public figures; and make arrangements to collect opinions on particular policies.

China’s increasing public environmental awareness, especially among the younger generation, is a reflection of the progress of our socialist democracy and political civilisation. It is the success of the concept of sustainable scientific development, and the hope for the future of the Chinese nation. This requires us to recognise and support the public’s right to be informed, to supervise and to take part in decision-making on environmental issues. Chinese people who have a sense of responsibility should actively participate in the cause of environmental protection and facilitate its development. The environmental cause is the most selfless cause promoted by the most selfless people. It needs more and more selfless people to make a contribution.

Pan Yue is deputy director of China’s State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA). Part of a new generation of outspoken Chinese senior officials, Pan has given rise to a tide of environmental debate, attracting enormous attention and controversy. This is an edited extract of Pan’s essay Environmental Protection and Public Participation (2004).

Also by Pan Yue on chinadialogue: “The rich consume and the poor suffer the pollution”

Homepage photo by Mark Hobbs