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The environment needs freedom of information

Ma Jun


The Chinese government recently issued rules to increase official transparency, requiring companies and government departments to publish their environmental records for the first time. Ma Jun calls on citizens to make good use of the information.
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On April 25, China’s State Council issued a new set of regulations on open government information. Shortly afterwards, Pan Yue, deputy director of the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), announced that trial regulations on the release of environmental information will come into effect from May 1 2008. These regulations – the first departmental rules relating to the release of state information – are a milestone on the path to guaranteeing the public’s right to access environmental information. The regulations make wider public participation in conservation possible, and provide an incentive for environmental departments to act according to the law.

My organisation, the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, has been developing a Chinese water pollution database since June last year. We have greatly appreciated China’s recent advances in the release of environmental information, but we have also witnessed how much work needs to be done. For example, in September 2006, there were still 100 cities that had not released any data on water pollution. Some local environmental departments had their own websites, but instead of using them to publicise information on the affairs of government, they simply featured brief summaries of the department's responsibilities and selected reports of meetings. It is hard for the public to obtain any information of real value from such websites.

The new departmental regulations will broaden the range and scope of environmental information that is released. Relevant departments must now disclose 17 different categories of information, including all aspects of environmental management. From now on, environmental departments will not be able to get away with simply making public their official procedures and conclusions, they will have to publish large amounts of environmental information. There is a set of rules that departments must abide by; they will no longer be able to pick and choose what they release.

The volume of data that is made public will not only increase, but there will also be strict time limits on the release of information. Moreover, the new regulations stipulate that the public can appeal against departments that break the rules, and even take them to court. In proposing these measures, SEPA has stood up to both internal and external pressures. It is the first department to regulate itself in this way, showing it truly places the public interest and environmental concerns above its own interests. For this, SEPA should be applauded.

The regulations, spurred by the State Council’s decision, allow the public to apply for environmental information from SEPA. Those applying for information will not have to state any reason for their application, but will only have to make clear precisely what they are requesting. The new rules, if they can be effectively implemented, will bring China into line with international standards. They show that the government disclosure of environmental information is a citizen’s right, not a privilege or gift from above. But whether or not the regulations can be effectively implemented will ultimately depend on whether the various environmental departments enter into the spirit of the State Council's regulations on open government information, which make disclosure the rule rather than the exception.

Corporate environmental statistics take on a special significance in rapidly-industrialising China. The new SEPA regulations reprise the demands of the earlier “Cleaner Production Promotion Law”, which requires polluting companies to release data about their activities. Environmental departments will be required to publish lists of companies whose pollution emissions are in breach of set limits. Corporations themselves must release details of the pollutants they emit, how they are emitted, the concentration and total volume of pollutants. They must also disclose details of the construction and operation of pollution-control facilities, and contingency plans for environmental accidents. If these demands can be effectively put into place, they will help the public understand the sources of pollution around them, and take part in monitoring companies’ pollution.

The experiences of a number of developed countries that have faced heavy pollution show that freedom of information can be an effective pollution-control measure. In 1986, when the US government first required companies to release annual reports of their use of hazardous chemicals, media and environmental organisations could expose big polluters for the first time. To combat the effects of negative publicity, corporations began to introduce pollution-control measures. Since then, the harmful emissions of companies in the US has fallen steadily. This particular success story influenced the 2001 European Union decision that required 50,000 companies to disclose information relating to the use of hazardous materials.

Freedom of information can help China urge companies to take responsibility for the environment. Using statistics provided by government departments, we were able to produce a map that shows 5,100 companies breaking environmental regulations. On March 22 this year, 21 environmental organisations joined a call for consumers to make “green choices”, urging them to be aware how some companies’ manufacturing processes can result in excessive pollution, and that such products should only be bought with caution. Public pressure has already resulted in more than 20 multinational and domestic corporations making contact with us to offer explanations for incidents where they have broken regulations. Six of these companies promised to accept third-party inspections within the time limits set out by the regulations. Their hope is that they can show the public they have changed, and work to meet emissions standards.

The world is now realising how lifestyle and development are inseparably linked to the environment. The right to a clean environment is a human right, and taking part in environmental management work is an effective way of safeguarding this right. Members of the public concerned with the environment should actively use SEPA's new regulations, and turn their attention to information disclosed by the government. Armed with this knowledge, they can participate in environmental protection schemes which directly affect their own wellbeing. Freedom of environmental information will lead to a positive interaction between the government and the public, and will be the solution to many of China's environmental problems.

Ma Jun is director of the Institute of Public and Environment Affairs

This article was first published in the Southern Metropolitan Daily.

Homepage photo by Axel Kirch

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Strong support!

Reguarding the project of the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), I've seen some websites of the Local Environment Departments, they all have a corner for public participation, to give advice and make complaints: I think it' s great!

Although in some of them, it is quite difficult to find this corner, if you open your eyes you can often see it. Especially the website of the Hubei Environment Department could do better at making it more evident.




Not Sure

i was very impresed by Ma Jun's statement. however, as we know it, information is power and i don't think that the information published will reflect the ACTUAL & REAL environmental impact of a company expecially if it is a state owned enterprise.



To care the earth together

I think NGO and GO should share the environment protect rules together, Some information delivering in NGO program activities. but some of them did not be summaried for sharing with GO. And look after the earth need all of us think of that , So NGO and Go must make very open and healthy communication in the future. to promote official transparency well. Pauline




Let's discuss this

Economics texts already prove -- information asymmetry causes risks to the environment just like it does financial risks

So stressing the importance of transparent environmental information is better using quotes from textbooks.

I've also seen the results of public participation by China's environmetal protection bureau in assessing climate effects, it was neither here nor there, nor actionable, this is a fiasco in the hands of the environmetal protection authorities.

If information must be publicly available, what should first be made known is:

What information do the authorities know?

Let them list it, let the public discuss what can be released, the authorities should also let people know which information can be released, how it can be accessed, or let the public know which information is related to public security and cannot be made public

Otherwise, everything else is just window dressing.

The environmental protection authorities should let everyone know, for example: China’s imports of refuse (used as raw materials), how many permits for how much were given, which companies are involved, how much in handling fees was charged, actual imports, usage. This would raise awareness of the “foreign rubbish” issue. Or, how much of the EPA’s budget was used for national research, how much was used by its subsidiaries, local governments, why do we always hear complaints about lack of funding for such research? While other government departments are flush with cash. Or: tell the public if there was no reduction in emissions, why do local government reports say the air quality is improving? We need factual, statistical backup. If the bureau can’t even release this sort of information, no amount of clauses and regulations will help the cause. Mind you, I’m not pouring cold water on Mr Ma Jun, I just feel, the public availability of environmental information should be gradually realized at a micro level, that’s something we should be doing.


正如马主任所说的那样, 这真是一个里程碑式的环保法令. 环境信息公开能提高公众环保认识与意识, 对地方政府和环保局工作促进并监督, 并在法规与企业形象两方面对企业环保质量予以压力. 其作用将无可置疑.

但我们也必须看到, 这只是环保道路上万里长征的重要一步. 在具体实施也执行上还会有很多难题和变数. 这是解释了为什么这只是 “试行”法令.

困难一: 各个环保局的水平, 能力不一. 只怕很多环保局都没有所需要资金,设备和能力, 去获取相关的信息, 更不用说公之与众. 这有与地方政府的财政支持能力, 重视程度有关.

困难二: 不同地区, 不同经济结构, 不同发展规律阶段, 造成不同地区不同比例的污染. 对于某些污染严重的地区, 多排污同时意味着企业的增收, 地方经济的发展规律. 传统发展模式与环保有不可调和的冲突. 试想, 如果不改变地方政府单纯的经济指标考核方式, 这些地方政府如何会有动力去支持当地的环保工作. 更有可能发生的是当地政府对环保工作的阻挠. 对与发展严重落后地区, 发展是大主题的情况下, 如何处理好发展与环保和谐并进, 是一门艺术, 不是环保法令就能解决的.

困难三: 企业信息的真实度. 政府能相信企业信息披露的多少? 更不用说公众了. 这不止在中国, 在发达国家也是一个难题. 欧盟正是因为相信了企业提供的信息, 对七大污染行业大量多给了2004-2007间的CO2 排放额, 结果从2006年到2007年, 每吨CO2 (2004-2007给予的排放额) 的交易价几乎降为零. 2006年英国CO2排放量增了1.25% (2005年降了0.01%). 根据BBC的特别报道, 两年内, 整个欧盟CO2排放也增长1%至2%. 欧盟吸取教训后, 怕不再会听取企业, 行业的一面之词去设指标. 我认为, 其将任用中立的, 享有盛誉的评估质询企业代为从事相关的评估, 并监督. 在中国, 这类质询业尚在萌芽阶段, 主要力量还是环保局, 如何保证信息质量, 评估质量是一道难题.

但是, 重要的是, 我们走出了这重要的一步, 困难与机遇并存!


challenges as well as opportunity

Just as Mr. Ma says, this is a cornerstone among environmental protection regulations. Opening the environmental information to the public can raise the social awareness, supervise and empower the local government, and push the enterprises to meet environmental standard by using the legal instrument as well as building company images. It will undoubtedly take significant effect. However, we must realize that it is only a step, though important, in our a-thousand-mile long way. Even that small step would face a lot of difficulty and challenges in implementation process. This partially explains why it’s just in a “trial period”. Challenges NO.1, the capability of Environment Protection Bureaus (EPBs) varies. I’m afraid that quite a lot EPBs lack funding, equipment and capacity to implement the regulation. They might also not be able to access relevant information, let alone open to the public. It’s highly related to the support from local governments. Challenges NO.2, different level of pollution shall be attributed to different areas with diverse economic structure in various stages of social development. For those highly polluted areas, releasing more pollutants means more revenue and economic profit. Thus the traditional way of development is intrinsically in a conflict with environmental protection. Think about it, if the local government is purely using economic growth as the assessment standard, how could they be motivated to protect the local environment rather than to find fault with the protection work, which is likely to happen in this political setting? For the less developed areas, how to balance between development and environmental protection shall be a matter of arts, which could not be solely handled by law. Challenges NO. 3, how real is the information given by the enterprises? How much can the government trust the company? How much can we as ordinary citizens trust them? It’s a difficult issue as well as in advanced economy. EU mistrusted the information, thus allowed seven industries more quota for CO2 emission between 2004 and 2007. This almost eliminated CO2 emission cost for them between 2006 and 2007. Britain, in 2006, after 0.01% decrease in 2005, increased its CO2 emission by 1.25%. According to BBC’s special report,CO2 emission in EU has generally increased by 1-2% within two years. Learning a serious lesson, EU might not easily trust the enterprises any more. I assume, it would hire neutral assessment agency with high reputation to evaluate and supervise. In China, such type of agencies is still in the very beginning. The main force is still the EPB. How to guarantee the quality of information is a real challenge. But, importantly, we take a significant step. The challenges is always with the opportunity!



Government plays a very important role

To protect the environment, government plays a very important role.
1. Set regulations for industries to follow.
2. Implement regulations.
3. Educate general public.
4. Set up education materials to school (educate our new generations!)

There are so many need to be done by the government!




No body believes people who don't speak the truth

In his 1859 text "On Liberty" John Stewart Mill while talking about freedom stated that,

"If the published idea is truthfull, if it provides a chance for real understanding, it will be exploited. Whereas, if the published idea is wrong, it allows the reader no further clarification or understanding of the truth. Because, this kind of explanation and impression can only be found in the battle between truth and error."

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