New government document lends support to environmental public interest litigations

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The General Office of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the General Office of the State Council have issued the “Guiding Opinions for the Construction of a Modern Environmental Governance System” and issued a notice requesting that all localities and departments implement it in a practical and earnest manner.

The document is divided into nine parts, which can be summarized as follows:

  1. The first part is the general requirements, including the guiding ideology, basic principles and main targets.
  2. The second part is about improving the leadership responsibility system for environmental governance, and improving the working mechanism of central coordination, provincial overall responsibility, and city and county implementation, clarifying the responsibility of central and local fiscal expenditures and carrying out target evaluations, and deepening ecological environmental protection inspection.
  3. Improving the corporate responsibility system for environmental governance and implementing a pollution permit management system in accordance with the law, promoting green production services, improving pollution control capabilities and levels, disclosing of environmental governance information.
  4. Improving the national action system for environmental governance and strengthening social supervision, getting various social groups to improve citizens’ environmental literacy.
  5. Improving the environmental governance supervision system, improving the supervision system, strengthening judicial guarantees, and strengthening monitoring and capacity building.
  6. Improving the environmental governance market system, building a standardized and open market, strengthening the support of the environmental protection industry, innovating the environmental governance model, and improving the price charging mechanism.
  7. Improving the environmental governance credit system, strengthening the integrity of government affairs, and improving corporate credit construction.
  8. Improving environmental governance laws, regulations and policy systems, improving laws and regulations, improving environmental protection standards, strengthening fiscal and tax support, and improving financial support.
  9. Strengthening organizational leadership and organizational implementation.


What has caught the most attention is a provision contained in the fifth section of the document, which exhorts the relevant departments to: “strengthen the investigation and prosecution of criminal behaviour that damages the environment, broaden the scope of litigations regarding cases of environmental damage, and strengthen the work of initiating environmental public interest prosecutions from the public prosecutor’s office.”

It has been possible for environmental organizations to initiate public interest litigations in China ever since China’s Environmental Protection Law was amended in 2015. Since then a few organizations have attempted to carry out such litigations, with mixed results. The most well-known case is the “Changzhou poisonous land case”, initiated by Friends of Nature and the Green Development Foundation against three chemical manufacturers in Changzhou. The two NGOs initially lost the case and were ordered to pay huge legal fees, but the final ruling in December 2018 overturned this decision, waiving the legal fees and ordering the companies under litigation to apologise. It can be hoped that this new government document may strengthen the hand of environmental NGOs that want to attempt to initiate new public interest litigations.