For better green governance
In the Decision on Major Issues Concerning Comprehensively Deepening Reforms, issued by the Third Plenary Session of the 18th Communist Party of China Central Committee, the words “participation” and “transparency/ open” appear 19 and 18 times.
Transparency and public participation have been emphasized by the plenum document to enhance the credibility of government decisions and to improve the management of public affairs at the grassroots level.
Environmental protection is an important function that the government has to perform. Public participation in environmental governance issues, particularly in environmental planning decisions, has been and continues to be a hot topic for China. The recent order of the State Council to enhance public information dissemination and transparency of public authorities is an important step to facilitate more effective environmental governance.
But providing accurate and reliable information is only the first step and the basis for meaningful public participation. Much more needs to be done.
In 2006, the State Environmental Protection Administration, predecessor of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, gave specific environmental impact assessment (EIA) on how to make information public, solicit public opinions and get the public involved in EIA processes, such as public deliberations, public hearings and surveys. But it has been widely reported that the public has not been adequately involved in the EIA process or other environmental planning decisions. The main reason for that is that project owners and EIA assessors are afraid of potential public opposition and often do not adopt credible methods for facilitating public participation.
With the Chinese society undergoing rapid transformation, it is necessary to make preparations for more public participation in environmental planning and assessment both through institutional and extra institutional channels. Addressing increased public environmental awareness and rising private concern about health and property need to go hand in hand — and should include more space for public participation in the environmental decision-making process.
Although the authorities have institutionalized public participation in government decisionmaking process and provided legal protection to private property, in practice public participation, particularly at the local level, is still highly contested and negotiated.
So it is in the interest of the government and all stakeholders to inform and involve the public in a systematic way at an early stage of the decisionmaking process and prevent situations where the public has no other option but to take to the streets with the potential for violent clashes between protesters and law enforcement officers.
The issue has been in focus at the current European Union-China Environmental Governance Program, a multimillion-euro cooperation program between the European Commission and the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection. The overall lessons learned from a European context show that public participation is an important element for the successful environmental planning process.
Going beyond just simple communication and provision of information, international experiences show that the most successful and effective examples of public participation involve the public as a partner in the decision-making process, leading to further empowerment of the public in the long term. Techniques available for effective public participation in environmental planning have evolved over the past two to three decades and have been successfully applied in a number of EU member states. A multitude of participation techniques have emerged, but they are yet to be used in China.
For instance, participatory techniques such as “Citizens’ Juries” can be used to broker a conflict or to provide a transparent and non-aligned viewpoint on various issues, including environmental planning. “Future Search” is a technique meant to shed light on a common problem to generate visions about the possible “future” and to jointly discuss how these visions can be realized.
Similarly, but by taking a long-term approach, the method of “Scenario Analysis” anticipates future developments of society and evaluates strategies for responding to these developments. The “Consensus Conference” developed in Denmark has been used to assess emerging technologies (such as nuclear energy or genetic modification) and their impacts. It is, therefore, relevant for environmental planning and assessment.
And “Deliberative Opinion Polling” is especially suitable for situations where the public may have little knowledge or information about a certain issue.
Nevertheless, decision-makers in many countries, including Europe and China, still hold the outdated opinion that public participation is either an obstacle to implementation of large projects or simply a matter of effective communication and information dissemination. This attitude is based on the belief that “authorities” already know what the best solution is and the public needs only to be convinced. In this case, it is not a matter of participation but one of persuasion.
Regardless of the participation method applied, a number of generally accepted principles for effective participation include an early involvement of stakeholders, integration of all stakeholders, setting process and goals, and monitoring of expectations and stakeholder satisfaction. It is particularly important that public participation starts early in the process, when decisions have not yet been made. Only then, delays in the implementation and even cancellation of projects can be avoided. Very importantly, through the constructive input of the public, “blind spots” in project planning overlooked by experts can be identified and addressed in time.
The EU-China Environmental Governance Program identified specific steps that could be taken to meet the needs of the plenum document and to close the gap with international standards and practices of public participation. They include adopting cutting-edge methods and instruments for public participation and using them in the Chinese context.
Capacity building is also necessary for local planning in China and for environmental authorities to improve their understanding of the conditions and procedures of practicing the chosen participation methods. Training of expert facilitators, who understand the importance of maintaining neutrality in public involvement sessions and are skilled in implementing the participatory methods and techniques, is another important element.
Finally, participatory stakeholder workshops should be held at the national and provincial levels on emerging issues related to controversial technologies to address long-term environmental challenges, such as nuclear waste management, shale gas fracking or carbon capture and storage. Patrick Schroeder works for EU SWITCH-Asia Network Facility, and Li Wanxin is a professor at the City University of Hong Kong and Tsinghua University.