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.


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