China to Strengthen Public Participation in Environmental Impact Assessments

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In early November, China's State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) circulated for comment a draft regulation intended to strengthen public participation in the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process. The new regulation includes stipulations on openness of information; safeguarding participants' rights; and procedures and methods for public involvement, including opinion surveys, consultations, seminars, debates, and hearings. It marks the first time that SEPA, or the Chinese government as a whole, has opened the doors to widespread public input into national development initiatives.

For more than two decades, the practice of conducting EIAs in China was a subset of the nation's larger Environmental Protection Law. In October 2002, it was upgraded to a new national EIA law, which entered into force in September 2003. A preventative measure, the law requires that all relevant parties, including experts and the general public, evaluate the likely impacts of development projects, programs, and plans on the natural and human environments.

In the two years following implementation, however, broad public involvement in China's EIA process has been limited. Access to information is often insufficient or even blocked, and participation is limited and unrepresentative. Consequently, public feedback tends to be minimal and ineffective. Moreover, because EIA assessors are trained and certified by SEPA and its branches, their close association with the agency and with local officials and investors has brought the credibility of their reports into question.

The problem is exacerbated by a lack of public awareness and education about the EIA process, which acts as an impediment to participation. Stipulations on procedures and methods of public participation are unclear in the EIA law, making it difficult for even China's more educated citizens to follow the guidelines.

But, SEPA has made several attempts to reform the EIA system this year. In May, in cooperation with the Ministry of Personnel, it held the first national examination for certifying EIA professionals, which attracted 14,000 participants nationwide. Three months later, it enacted the new "Measures on EIA Agencies Qualification Management" in an effort to evaluate assessors. SEPA suspended the operations of any agents who failed to observe the standard, including, in October, the EIA center affiliated with Peking University, one of China's top universities.

The push to boost public participation is the latest of SEPA's efforts to strengthen the effectiveness of China's EIA law. To garner advice from the broadest audience possible, SEPA has sent the draft regulation to all ministries, government departments, and local SEPA branches, as well as posted it on its official website. The draft was open for public comment from November 11 to December 7.

The move has won applause from Chinese environmental groups, and has the potential to significantly reshape the nation's civil society. Several groups, including the Professional Association for China's Environment (PACE) have responded to SEPA's action by posting their own calls for comments as well as holding meetings and discussions to collect public commentary and to educate people on what EIAs mean for them. The Center for Biodiversity and Indigenous Knowledge (CBIK) is compiling public responses to submit in a comprehensive report to SEPA.

Given that only one-twelfth of China's total population uses the Internet, it remains to be seen how representative and comprehensive the public feedback will be. Nevertheless, the new draft regulation is an important step towards mainstreaming environmental concerns into China's development initiatives, ensuring the quality, comprehensiveness, and effectiveness of EIAs and keeping EIA agents in check from the influence of powerful interest groups.

Worldwatch Correspondent Lila Buckley contributed to this story from Beijing.