Assessing the State of Environmental Transparency in China
Posted June 7, 2010
I was in Weihai (en), a 2.5 million person city in eastern Shandong Province, last month to talk about environmental transparency with more than 50 government officials and scholars from around China. As far as I am aware, this is the largest gathering to date of Chinese government officials focused on implementation of China’s Open Government Information Regulations and Open Environmental Information Measures, which went into effect on May 1, 2008. The workshop in Weihai, which we co-sponsored with Environmental Protection Magazine, the Wendeng Municipal Government and the Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), was a chance for government officials responsible for open information work to come to share their experiences and exchange ideas.
This event also marked the launch of a new 76-page report from IPE and NRDC analyzing the first year of implementation of China’s open information regulations. A Chinese version of the report – Breaking the Ice on Open Environmental Information: 2008 Pollution Information Transparency Index (PITI) – can be downloaded here. An English version will be available before the end of the June.
This report is a follow-up to our announcement of preliminary results last year, and contains an in-depth look at transparency practices around China, and an introduction to international practices in environmental transparency. In particular, this report contains a substantial amount of new analysis regarding last year’s findings.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
As announced last year, there was good news and bad, and the PITI analysis highlighted some thorny issues that will need to be dealt with if environmental transparency is to truly take flight in China.
- The good. Many of China’s cities have made a good start on open information. We’ve highlighted an “all-star” team made up of the top-performing cities in each of 8 categories of information evaluated – Shanghai, Taizhou, Shenzhen, Lianyungang, Beijing, Shaoxing, Kunming, and Hefei. The all-star team received a near-perfect score on our PITI scale: 89.5 out of 100. The take-away here is that some cities have already begun to demonstrate positive performance on open information in China. The argument that China is not ready or not yet developed enough to engage in good environmental transparency just does not hold water.
- The bad. Overall performance on transparency was low: just over 30 points out of 100. Full compliance with current legal requirements would earn a city over 60 points.
- The ugly. Many cities with heavy pollution tended also to have low disclosure. Only 24% of cities (27 of 113) actually responded to public information requests for information clearly listed in regulations as legally-required disclosure. Many cities used too-expansive interpretations of “commercial secrets” exemptions and other legal provisions to withhold information from the public. There still is no reliable forum or channel for the public to challenge inappropriate decisions to withhold information.
We make a series of recommendations to address these challenges, including: clarifying the scope of disclosure (by judicial interpretation and environmental ministry guidance), establishing fair and impartial dispute resolution mechanisms to deal with inevitable disagreements, and disclosing information – such as facility-level pollutant emissions data and environmental impact assessment reports – that is not now required to be disclosed.
Progress on Open Information in 2009
The Weihai workshop was a chance for government officials to report on their progress on information disclosure. One would hope and expect to see improvement in implementation as cities have now had two years to build up systems and staffing for information disclosure. A few developments worth noting:
- Most Improved. The western city of Lanzhou, one of China’s most polluted, was also one of the worst performing cities in our PITI evaluation. Lanzhou came in 92nd out of 113 in 2008 with a mere 16.6 points. Based on their presentation at Weihai, Lanzhou may be in the running for “most improved” in our upcoming 2009 PITI ranking. Lanzhou is about to launch a major new website with a wide range of information disclosure and they have expressed a commitment to better response to public information requests. We’ll be looking out for their performance as we complete our new ranking, to be released in the fall of 2010.
- Improvement in Responses to Information Requests. A team of researchers is now carrying out the second PITI evaluation. Early research is showing a higher response rate for public information requests. A full report will appear in the 2nd annual PITI evaluation.
- Good News from Around the Country. A number of other cities reported interesting developments. An official from Yunnan Province noted that as their information disclosure improved, it reduced the burden placed on monitoring officials, who previously received countless requests from the public to perform monitoring of environmental quality because the information was not regularly disclosed to the public. An environmental official from Huangshi, a city near Wuhan in central China not in last year’s PITI, told us that their city had just received an RMB 800 million project from the central government to pilot open government information. Dalian noted that it had connected its 12369 complaint hotline with a web platform, such that all complaints are automatically registered online for public viewing. We’ll report on more case studies in our new ranking and report in the fall.
We have seen some progress and bright spots among the cities evaluated. The question is whether the cases we have seen are exceptions or indicative of broader trends. As we complete our new 2009 PITI ranking for the period from May 1, 2009 to May 1, 2010, we will be looking out for signs of improvement and any retrenchment. Stay tuned for the results later this year.