SEPA Releases New Measure on Public Participation in Environmental Impact Assessment Process

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BEIJING—The State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), China’s top environmental body, has released a tentative measure on public involvement in the nation’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process. The ruling, made public on February 22, is the outcome of nearly four months of deliberation following circulation of an early draft for public comment in November. It may see further revision as SEPA receives additional feedback.

The regulation is the first in China to encourage broad public participation in environmental issues. It clarifies the rights and obligations of the public, developers, and environmental groups in the EIA process and outlines five specific vehicles for public participation: opinion surveys, consultations, seminars, debates, and hearings. Among other mandates, project developers or their commissioned EIA agents are required to represent a broad range of regions, occupations, and expertise when selecting individuals or groups to review their reports. They are also required to make these assessments clear, concise, and widely available to the public.

The new measure, which takes effect March 18, has won general applause from environmentalists, who believe it provides the public with a concrete channel for participation. Just one day after its release, some 30 non-governmental activists, academic experts, and journalists held an informal seminar to discuss the regulation’s significance, as well as room for improvement. Environmentalists are concerned, for instance, that the proposed public comment period on EIA reports—currently a minimum of 10 days—is too short to ensure adequate public participation. They also raised skepticism about an exemption for projects deemed to be “state secrets,” worried that this term would likely be abused by developers to shun their environmental responsibilities. A possible way to avoid any manipulation, they suggest, is to make public the formal State Council documents that grant such status.

Public participation has long been neglected in China’s EIA process. The first national environmental protection and livelihood index, released earlier this year, revealed that while Chinese people are generally concerned about environmental issues, they are less enthusiastic about participating in these causes. Only 6.3 percent of individuals surveyed took part in environmental activities over the previous three months, and more than 80 percent of respondents were unaware of the existence of the nation’s free phone hotline for reporting environmental problems.

SEPA believes this low participation is not an indication of the public’s lack of awareness, but rather reflects the absence of an effective mechanism for public action. “Many large plans and projects that exert huge influence on the environment began construction through ‘black box’ operations,” Deputy Director Pan Yue told Nanfang Weekend earlier this month. “The public didn’t know the information, and had no channel to voice their opinion. Public interests have been encroached by some interest groups.”

The new measure was initiated to encourage greater transparency in the development process. However, as is so common in China, laws on paper are one thing, while enforcement is another. “The major concern now is how to enforce the measure,” said Wang Jin, Professor at Peking University’s Environmental and Resources Law Institute, at the February 23 seminar. “It involves large amounts of labor, resources, and funds, which I’m afraid that SEPA doesn’t have sufficient supply of at this moment.”

It is in this void that environmental groups and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) could and should fit in, the seminar participants agreed. Jin Jiaman, Executive Director of the Beijing-based Global Environmental Institute, cautions that China’s NGO movement, still in its infancy, has much to learn to promote public participation.

Sheri Liao, President of Global Village of Beijing, one of China’s most pioneering environmental groups, suggested that SEPA build a regular platform for dialogue among representatives from NGOs, academia, and various government departments. She also encouraged NGOs to share information among themselves. “In this way, we can create a dynamic momentum for promoting public participation,” Liao told the seminar group.