The government passed a significant strengthening of its Environmental Protection Law (EPL) in 2014. The EPL indicates the serious commitment to governance and accountability. This was the first major revision of the EPL since 1989. The ambitious first draft from the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) was rejected by the National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee, the key legislative body in the country. The desire to weaken environmental protection met with an institutional backlash. The influential National Resources Development Committee (NDRC) took it over and issued a much weaker redraft in 2012. This spurred the MEP to take the unlikely course of publicly issuing 34 issues countering this redraft whilst emphasising the need for stronger environmental accountability. This catalysed public dissent and led to another round of intense debate. A third draft was issued by the Law Committee of the NPC which further roused intense debate from those concerned about the environment. In April 2014 an unprecedented 4th extraordinary review was called at which point the legislation was agreed. It came into effect on 1 January, 2015. Although compromise has undermined some of its strength, it still remains an important and powerful tool in holding to account officials and companies.
The main elements of the EPL are:
- Transparency - companies and local government authorities are required publish information about environmental impacts, quality, incidents, licensing and penalties;
- Increased liability for polluters - polluters will be subject to fines that can accumulate on a daily basis. These will be made public.
- Increased liability for government officials - local government departments and officials will have their performance evaluations taken into account of pollution and incidents. These can be made public.
- Whistleblower protection - Any citizen, legal person or other organization will have the right to report (i) environmental pollution or ecological damage caused by any institution or individual; and (ii) failure of any environmental regulatory body to perform its legal duties, and such report must keep the relevant information on the informant confidential
- Access to law courts - ‘Social public interest organisations’ (civil society) can file environmental pollution claims to the People’s Court for environmental pollution and ecological damage. This is the most effective means ensuring compliance, driving change and address citizen angst against local abuse of environment laws.