In recent years, public participation has emerged in environmental protection field and has been viewed by authorities as a potential method to reach more rational decisions. In this context, Pacific Environment (PE) launched an initiative in 2015 aiming at improving the public participation in environmental decision-making (environmental public participation) in China.
This initiative carried out comprehensive desk research and launched pilot projects of public participation in four cities, identifying the major opportunities and weaknesses in environmental public participation in China and pointing out the direction of next steps in promoting environmental public participation.
The inclusion of environmental public participation in China’s legal framework
Environmental public participation was firstly mentioned in the 2002 Environmental Impact Assessment Law. Since then, it has become a general principle set forth in a series of laws, regulations and rules at the national level. See below for a brief list of the main national statutes which constitute the legal framework of environmental public participation in China.
The disclosure of environ information & public participation in environ decision making are the two major contents of the legal framework
The disclosure of environmental information and the public participation in environmental decision making are the two major contents of the legal framework, which allow the public to have access to environmental information and to express their opinion during the government’s decision-making process. For example, the Legislation Law, which was revised in 2015, makes it clear that the in drafting administrative regulations and rules, opinions from relevant citizens shall be widely heard. A series of legal documents regarding environmental impact assessment (EIA) specify that construction projects that might have a large environmental impact should solicit public comment.
These policies serve as a mandate for public participation, and as the procedures and requirements for public participation in environmental decision-making are become clearer and more practicable, there are new opportunities for concerned citizens and nonprofits to participate in the environmental decision-making process.
Implementation in four pilot cities shows positive signs
To examine the extent to which local governments have started to implement policies related to environmental public participation, PE studied policy implementation and launched pilot projects in four cities in four different provinces, namely Changsha (Hunan), Wuhu (Anhui), Nanjing (Jiangsu), Fuyuan (Heilongjiang).
We found out that local Environmental Protection Bureaus (EPBs) in these four cities have all conducted actions related to environmental information disclosure, public opinion solicitation, and handling of public reporting of pollution issues. This is a sign that local government may be open to public participation, but EPBs in different cities implement public participation to different extents. EPBs in cities with relatively higher local GDP like Nanjing and Changsha were found to be more active than the other two cities.
EPBs in cities with relatively higher local GDP like Nanjing & Changsha were found to be more active than the other two cities…
… social media has also contributed to the development of environmental public participation
Social media has also contributed to the development of environmental public participation. One of our pilot project “One Kilometer of the Upstream” conducted in Hunan shows that the wide use of social media such as WeChat with many illustrations can be able to attract a large number of audiences to participate. Also, during the implementation of our pilot projects, we can also sense the positive change of local government departments (especially the EPB) toward public participation through their interaction with grassroots NGOs and the public.
Policy Shortfalls and Implementation Challenges
Notwithstanding the aforementioned opportunities, obstacles remain to substantial and meaningful environmental public participation. A key shortcoming of the policies on public participation in environmental decision making is a lack of significant consequences when government bureaus don’t take public participation seriously.
A key shortcoming is a lack of significant consequences when government bureaus don’t take public participation seriously
In an oft-cited example, when public opinions are solicited for EIAs, they are often not taken into serious consideration and there are no clear and objective criteria to determine what counts as “full consideration” (as specified in the Environmental Protection Law), and there are no procedures to examine whether dismissal of any public opinion given on the EIA is a reasonable action made by the government and/or the developer.
In the four case study cities, we found that other local government branches such as local People’s Congress, the Water Bureau, and the Urban Construction Bureau played an important complementary role in making environmental decisions; but they were not as active as the EPB in seeking methods to do so.
Further, in all four cities, we found no evidence that local governments made any efforts to enhance citizen and NGO capacity to meaningfully participate in environmental decision making, although this requirement is directly set forth in some regulations (such as the “Decision of the State Council on Implementing Scientific Outlook on Development and Strengthening Environmental Protection” and the “Action Plan for Water Pollution Prevention”).
How to Grow Environmental Public Participation
The environmental awareness of the general public has increased in recent years, yet a gap remains between citizens’ environmental awareness and their ability to meaningfully participate in environmental protection.
Public participation is likely to grow when there are clear avenues for participation & increased evidence of impact
Often people feel they don’t have enough information and knowledge; or, unless they are directly and acutely affected by an environmental problem, some may not want to spend time and resources being involved. Many environmental concerns do directly impact a broad range of citizens in China, such as air pollution, which has inspired an uptick in citizen activism in recent years due to widespread health concerns. When there are clear avenues for participation and increased evidence that participation can really impact decisions, public participation is likely to grow.
Government is in the frontline of promoting environmental public participation. The implementation of public participation requires a change in the mindset, realizing that the interaction with civil society and involvement of public can enhance the public’s trust on the governments and alleviate social tensions. By establishing a mechanism to meaningfully communicate with NGOs and the general public and invite them to participate in the decision-making process, the government can make and implement public policies in a more reasonable way.
Grassroots NGOs have close interactions with local communities as well as local governments and thereby have advantages to promote environmental education and raise environmental awareness as well as encourage public participation through local government decision processes.
Grassroots NGOs can play a bridge between local governments & the public
Our pilot projects show that grassroots NGOs can play a bridge between local governments and the public. On one hand, they can collect pubic opinion in flexible ways and sum it up into professional proposals that are hard for the government to ignore; on the other hand, they can be invited to governmental seminars/meetings and thereby have opportunities to convey public opinions to officials directly.
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