After putting two highly polluting projects on hold as a result of public pressure, the top environmental watchdog yesterday said it would seek to establish a proper mechanism to allow for its further participation in environmental governance.
"The public is the most interested party when it comes to the environment and has the biggest incentive to protect it," the vice-minister of the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) Pan Yue said at an urban management symposium in Beijing.
"Therefore, people should be given the right to know, to express, to participate and to supervise," he said, adding the government should establish a system to protect these rights.
The Environmental Impact Assessment Law, passed in 2002, and administration documents have made it clear that public involvement in environmental management is encouraged, although there is so far no detailed or effective mechanism to safeguard such participation.
The lack of public participation could harm the implementation of environmental policies and cause conflicts between governments and the people, Pan said.
Earlier this month, thousands of people in the eastern coastal city of Xiamen took to the streets to voice their anger after the government approved the construction of a chemical project close to local residential areas.
At about the same time, hundreds of people gathered at the SEPA's offices in Beijing to protest against a planned waste incineration power project in the city. Protesters in both cities said local governments had failed to listen to their concerns.
The administration subsequently suspended both projects pending further environmental assessments.
However, officials admitted there is still no clear path to a standardized communication mechanism.
"How to design and formulate the mechanism is still under discussion," Bie Tao, deputy director of the administration's policies and regulations department, said.
But he said a project supported by the World Bank was a good attempt.
The project, which was initiated in 2000 and will end this year, seeks to hold regular roundtable meetings featuring representatives of the government, commerce and industry, and community groups to allow the public to have a bigger say in environmental governance.
The project has successfully held more than 30 meetings in nine cities, most in East China's Jiangsu Province and the northern Hebei Province, and helped improve the transparency of local policymaking.
However, Wang Hua, a project leader and senior economist with the World Bank, said the project had failed to set up a regular mechanism due to a lack of government support.
"If there is no clear regulation, most local governments are unwilling to take the trouble," he said.
Meanwhile, a new website, which officially opened yesterday, is seeking to provide detailed information relating to environmental laws and regulations.
The site, www.greenlaw.org.cn, is a joint venture between environmental NGOs, China Environment Culture Promotion Association and the US-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
Alex Wang, director of the NRDC China Environmental Law Project, said China has about 600 laws and regulations regarding public participation, but they are not always easy to understand.
"The website aims to provide clear and concise information, using case studies and a legal database," he said.
(China Daily June 22, 2007)