Environmental Information Transparency in China

The three-year project entitled “Environmental Information Transparency in China: Analysing Individual, Organisational and Regional Disparities in Supply and Demand”, led by Dr LI Wanxin, Associate Professor of the Department of Public Policy, has just been completed with the support of General Research Fund (GRF) grants.

Following the global trend, the Chinese government has made big strides in empowering the public to participate in environmental issues by mandating disclosure of environmental information held by the government. According to the PRC Law on Environmental Protection 1979 (for trial implementation), the central government has set national standards for ambient environmental quality and emission standards. Furthermore, national monitoring networks have been established for monitoring ambient environmental quality such as air and water.

Owing to the regional disparities in levels of economic growth, environmental monitoring capacities, and public environmental awareness and demand for a clean environment, national environmental regulations and standards are not always faithfully followed at local level. However, localities with higher capacities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Chongqing have become forerunners in environmental monitoring and reporting in the country. This has also facilitated environmental enforcement by both the government and the public.

Drawing on the Chinese experience, as well as those of the European Union and other countries, the study suggests that China's Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) should build further capacity for green growth that will enable the country to measure, report, and verify environmental performance in terms of both ambient environmental quality and emissions from pollution sources. More specific recommendations are as follows.

First, the existing environmental regulations and standards have been mainly based on considerations of the functional purposes of different geographical areas and environmental media. However, it is important to establish the link between environmental and health risks and environmental standards. The MEP can build the capacity to translate information on ambient environmental quality into the expected health impact and activity guidance that the general public can easily make sense of.

Second, it has been found that environmental information with potential negative impacts on polluters' images and/or profits can be blocked from the public and no enforcement action taken if those polluters enjoy large lobbying and bargaining power locally. Given the legal requirements on environmental information transparency in China, the MEP can build the capacity to establish pollutant release and transfer registry (PRTR), rating the environmental performance of polluting industries, using interactive communication technologies to publish the rating results, and promoting more efficient and effective environmental enforcement.

Third, since local environmental performance has been included in the evaluation system of governmental officials, the MEP can build the capacity for local governments (city and county level) to diagnose environmental problems and rate their local environmental performance. The MEP can then make use of that information to generate interactive tools that allow the public to check on their local governments and enhance government accountability.

To improve environmental monitoring and information transparency, it is necessary for both China as the parties concerned to sponsor longitudinal studies and scientific research into the health effects of pollution, and further expand the capacity of the country's local environmental protection bureaus.