To read more on this topic, look for Mr. Carpenter-Gold’s student note in the upcoming Volume 39.1 of the Harvard Environmental Law Review.
Chinese environmental policy has been rapidly modernizing over the past few years, likely in response to highly visible pollution. Among these changes, the Environmental Protection Law (EPL) has been almost completely rewritten to greatly strengthen the country’s environmental law regime. One-off fines (criticized as being far less than the actual cost of compliance with the law) are out; daily penalties (Art. 59), confiscation of equipment (Art. 25), and even jail time for “the person directly in charge” of the polluting entity (Art. 63) are in. The groundwork has been laid for a comprehensive emissions permitting system (Art. 45). Regions which fail to meet environmental targets designated by the central government will face blanket suspensions of the right to undertake new construction projects (Art. 44). Finally, a number of new avenues for public participation have been opened up (Arts. 53–58). Significant among these is the right, for some organizations, to bring litigation in the public interest against polluters (Art. 58).
Many of these provisions will be familiar to students and practitioners of US environmental law. This is no accident—substantial effort, by NGOs and the US government alike, has gone into encouraging the Chinese government to adopt more Western environmental standards. These projects have run the gamut from regular visits by EPA’s general counsel, to experts’ reports, to study tours for academics and practitioners, and they have paid off in the new EPL, whose language equals or even exceeds that of US environmental legislation.
In addition to borrowing from international experience, China has used its own local governments to experiment with expanded standing provisions. Environmental public-interest litigation in China has, over the past decade, been slowly introduced in some counties and municipalities. Although cases under these regulations have been almost exclusively brought by government-organized NGOs, they seemed to have demonstrated the viability of a Chinese environmental public-interest litigation system.
The central government, apparently encouraged both by the international community and by the success of such provisions at the local level, amended the Civil Procedure Law (CPL) in 2012 to grant standing to “relevant organizations” that bring lawsuits to address environmental harms. This should have enabled a new wave of litigation from environmental NGOs. Indeed, high-powered organizations such as the All-China Environment Federation attempted to file a number of cases after the change. However, outside of the regions which already had provided for environmental public-interest litigation, the courts have universally refused to allow cases brought under the amended law, offering only thin excuses or none at all.
Why couldn’t this policy, which has been in use for years in some parts of China and for decades abroad (with no greater specificity), succeed at the national level? The answer lies in the particular structure of China’s judiciary: the local governments in China control the budget and personnel decisions of local courts. Where the local government does not wish to have the expanded regulatory oversight that public-interest litigation brings, it can easily pressure the courts into refusing the cases. Neither US nor local jurisdictions which had implemented expanded standing provisions had to cope with the divide between central and local governments: in the US this was not an issue because of American judicial independence, and the Chinese localities which allowed environmental public-interest litigation were presumably already supportive of environmental protection.
Regulatory decisions are always of uncertain impact, and a country can be forgiven for taking paths already trod rather than experimenting on their own people. But borrowing policies from other countries, or even from their own subunits, can only work to the extent that the borrower carefully evaluates the differences between the two systems. In amending the CPL, China seems to have overlooked the problem of local-government resistance, presumably because the cases which were used in developing the law did not have this problem.
The experience of the 2012 CPL suggests that the public interest litigation provisions of the Environmental Protection Law may be weaker in practice than they appear on paper. The new law asks a lot of local governments, and particularly local Environmental Protection Bureaus (EPBs), the local-level agencies in charge of enforcing most environmental regulations, which are beholden to the governments at their level to the same extent that the local courts are. However, the EPL takes some steps toward strengthening central control over EPBs by allowing EPBs at a higher governmental level to discipline EPBs within their jurisdiction (Art. 67, for example). There is also talk of increasing central control of the court system, which could remove some of the local governments’ influence. There is likely to remain a substantial gap between the law on paper and the law as enforced, but the overall trend is toward strengthening governance and the rule of law. That’s good news for China’s environment.