Current Location: Homepage>News & Perspectives > Latest News
Nation advancing rule of law in relation to environment

Wind turbines in Zhoushan, Zhejiang province, slowly turn with the help of sea breezes and generate green electricity for places across the country on July 2. [YAO FENG/FOR CHINA DAILY]

The ongoing two sessions annual gatherings in Beijing of the National People's Congress, the country's top legislature, and the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, the country's top political advisory body, will set the legislative and government priorities for 2024. Stimulating the economy will certainly be on the agenda, with a particular focus on green sectors, such as solar, wind, batteries and electric vehicles, as they have become major growth drivers.

Lawmakers are also expected to reflect on the next steps in advancing the rule of law in relation to the environment, which is playing a key role in cleaning up the environment and building a beautiful China.

Ten years ago, the NPC passed major revisions to China's Environmental Protection Law. In response to the serious social and economic problems caused by pollution, the government initiated a "War on Pollution", and the law has become a key "weapon" in this war.

Environmental information disclosure and public participation were firmly embedded in the new law, and for the first time, qualified organizations were able to bring public interest litigation. From then on, people's procuratorates and related organizations and Chinese environmental NGOs have brought many significant cases.

An excellent example of a case brought by NGOs challenged a large coastal development in Lianyungang, Jiangsu province. The case, brought by several local NGOs, alleged that the project, labeled as an environmental "restoration "project, would in fact destroy a huge bird habitat. The project was halted by a court order in January, and an appeal is ongoing.

Since 2015, hundreds of environmental courts have been established, and people's procuratorates have established special departments to bring public interest litigation at all levels in China. People's procuratorates and related organizations have brought over 400,000 public interest cases involving the environment in the past five years, with almost 85 percent of those public interest legal challenges against local government departments. Very few other countries have such a system.

ClientEarth, the environmental law organization that I work for, brings environmental public interest cases in Europe. It has had the honor of cooperating with China's Ministry of Ecology and Environment, the Supreme People's Court and the Supreme People's Procuratorate over the past years.

A good example of our cooperation has been our support for the Supreme People's Procuratorate's work to halt the sale of illegal nets used to kill birds. ClientEarth brought several bird specialists to an event on wetland protection hosted by the people's procuratorate in Yancheng, Jiangsu province, in September, at which the organization was asked what would be the most effective thing it could do to protect wetlands. The answer was that the most effective measure would be to prioritize action against illegal "mist nets", which up until then were widely available on e-commerce platforms in China, killing millions of birds every year and possibly causing the extinction of some species.

According to Qiu Jinghui, deputy director of the public interest division of the Supreme People's Procuratorate, this advice aligned well with the extensive work done by people's procuratorates over the years. In 2019, people's procuratorates in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region handled a number of cases involving the illegal hunting of wild birds. The procuratorates that handled the cases also called for stricter regulation of prohibited hunting tools, and this was enshrined in the Wildlife Protection Law of 2023.

In the recent months, the Supreme People's Procuratorate has called for increased oversight of the production, sale and use of bird nets. People's procuratorates in key regions have taken rapid action, and now the mist nets are no longer available. A warning message appears when anyone tries to buy them.

The National People's Congress is in the process of drafting a dedicated law on procuratorial public interest litigation. This provides an excellent opportunity to strengthen the legal framework in areas such as preventive litigation (for example, to challenge approvals of environmentally risky projects before they are built), punitive penalties (more practical than calculating ecological damage) and climate litigation.

Looking ahead, people's procuratorates and related organizations will also be able to play a greater role in supporting China's climate targets. In 2021, Deputy Procurator-General Zhang Xueqiao announced that the Supreme People's Procuratorate was "actively exploring" climate litigation. Several breakthroughs were made in 2023, when both the Supreme People's Court and Supreme People's Procuratorate issued guidance documents regarding climate change cases.

Possible roles for the people's procuratorates include challenging financial greenwashing (which gives a false impression that an investment instrument is environmentally friendly), cracking down on the illegal emission of greenhouse gases, and ensuring that key policies and procedures are strictly followed in the approval of projects with high emissions. Hopefully, China will develop a dedicated law to tackle climate change in the coming years, as this would provide a much stronger legal basis for environmental protection.

China's system for environmental public interest litigation is unique, and has transformed the enforcement of environmental law. While the legal system is different in every nation, China's experience could provide inspiration to other countries seeking to enhance their enforcement of environmental law. The specialization of the people's procuratorates, the sheer number of cases they bring, the way they make extensive use of remote sensing data and artificial intelligence, the broad scope of cases, and the fact that they can challenge government departments, are all world-leading.

The author is regional director for Asia at ClientEarth and special adviser of the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development.