Devolving EIAs to local officials is a mistake, warn Chinese NGOs

Moves by the Ministry of Environmental Protection to devolve powers to the local level is a mistake, says Friends of Nature director Li Bo

A significant number of our environmental problems stem from bad project approval decisions by local governments. Macro-level control and oversight is essential, whether for controlling GDP, capping pollutant emissions, or economic restructuring. Yet in February this year Xinhua reported that the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) was to devolve the right to approve environmental impact assessment reports (EIAs), in order to make the process “simpler, faster and more efficient.”

A number of cases suggest that this risks compromising the approval process. In November 2011, after the Beijing government abandoned plans for an incinerator at Liulitun, in Haidian district, the district authorities decided to build one at Sujiatuo, also the site of a nature park.

In the past a project of this size, facing so much public opposition and potentially causing so much pollution, would have been examined by the ministry. But environmental groups learned from the MEP that prior to 2011 it had devolved the right to decide on incinerator projects to the provincial level. Instead the project was approved by the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau.

The approvals and hearings process for the Sujiatuo incinerator were decidedly unusual, not least because of fabrications in the supporting report produced by the Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences (CAMS). This wasn’t the first such irregularity in a CAMS report: in the EIA report for an incinerator in Qinhuangdao some of the signatories to the “public participation” section were those of dead people, while others were from fugitives. Green NGOs, including Nature University, have called for CAMS to be replaced, and its license to carry out EIAs reviewed.

The Sujiatuo case shows that the state has given up its important role as a final check in the fields of urban public health and incinerator projects. There would be grave concerns if a new round of devolution of powers occurred. Cases of processes and rules being breached exist nationwide, in mining, hydropower development, the chemical industry, and hazardous chemical waste disposal.

The MEP recently told the media that once EIA powers are devolved it will focus on assessing the environmental impact of regional planning, managing national environmental protection and governance from a higher level. Theoretically the regional assessments are of greater strategic value, but in reality there is little cause for optimism: since the regulations on regional assessments were published four years ago we have seen 22% of national nature reserves changed to make way for industrialisation, urbanisation and excessive development; projects opposed for years by both the public and experts have gone ahead anyway, such as the Xiaonanhai Dam, which will seriously damage the Yangtze’s only rare fish reserve.

The west of China, crucial for national environmental security, now suffers from worse environmental governance and less public participation than the east of the country. At a January 2012 meeting on environmental impact assessment work, Vice-Minister Wu Xiaoqing said that “projects in the west will be preferred, by entrusting or devolving some approval rights.”

The south-west, an earthquake hotspot and key area for biodiversity, is also zoned for less, or no, development. We have reason to fear that the devolution of EIA rights will rub salt into already raw environmental wounds.

Three conditions need to be fulfilled before the MEP devolves these rights. First, provincial and city governments need to change GDP-based views of development.

Second, there needs to be a high degree of recognition and support for regional and strategic environmental assessments among the State Council’s ministries and commissions.

Third, we need active participation by social groups in the decision-making process for major projects, with full transparency.

Regrettably, none of these are yet in place; there is still a wide gulf between the high hopes of the MEP for regional assessments and the reality. The primary drafter of those regulations, Peking University School of Law professor Wang Jin, and Yan Houfu, a PhD student who followed the drafting of the rules, say that progress from promulgation to implementation has been tough. They argue that the legislative basis for the rules was inadequate, and it is hard to evaluate the environmental impact of much planning ( for example, assessments have not been carried out for much of the 12th Five Year Plan).

The state also has no scientific and quantified measure of environmental capacity, meaning there is no basis on which to carry out the assessments. Without the necessary conditions there is no basis on which to produce specific regulations.

Wang Jin has particularly stressed the issue of public participation: “the first consultation draft was 12,000 characters long, but was cut down to 4,200 – with most of the loss being from the section on public participation.”

Hopefully the MEP will first consider the problems it faces and the outcomes it hopes to achieve before implementing the State Council reforms and transfers of powers, rather than simply acting for the sake of being seen to do something. Otherwise, valuable powers may be thrown away.

The MEP devolving EIA powers will result in more harm than good, and is bound to lead to new environmental disputes and damage.