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UPDATED: May 21, 2015 NO. 13 MARCH 26, 2015
Will Greater Autonomy Improve Environmental Assessments?

Public involvement

Shu Tianlie (Beijing Times): Thanks to environmental assessment, in recent years, we have seen many purposeful campaigns being launched against environmental pollution. There is no doubt the very existence of assessment to some extent forces businesses to strengthen their awareness of such issues. However, owing to problems within the assessment system, various issues continue to rear their ugly heads, including instances of corruption. The lack of public participation, the opaque nature of the assessment process and the influence of administrative authorities, among other factors, are increasingly making environmental assessment seem like a mere formality. This is a systemic problem, as assessment results carry so much weight that they often represent the final word with respect to many environmental issues. An "absolute power" of this kind leads to various forms of corruption in this field.

On balance, the new minister's promises to investigate the recent breaches of law concerning environmental assessment and to hold fully culpable those responsible, and the decision to completely rend assessment agencies from environmental authorities actually seem to have come too late. At the same time, while the MEP may be proceeding on schedule in breaking away from the eight assessment agencies operating under its sub-institutions, it's difficult to say how long it will take to perform the same task at local levels. Even after these agencies have been made independent of the government, the question of how to ensure that the assessment institutions will be able to perform the work efficiently and free of administrative interference will remain pertinent.

The majority of environmental issues are topics only of informal discussion among the public, with little effective channels for their voices be taken into consideration. Therefore, improving the levels of transparency and public involvement in environmental assessment is highly important.

Tangjiweide (Jining Evening News): Assessment agencies play such a vital role that the production of inaccurate assessment reports may render the government's approval and monitoring procedure inefficient. Therefore, strong supervision over environmental assessment must exist, or the activity of "environmental protection" may be rendered a perversion of the very phrase.

Nevertheless, mere management of environmental assessment through purely administrative means will not have the desired results. The priority now is to make the process of environmental assessment open and transparent. The public deserves to know what impact new projects will have on the environment in which they are living. It should be demanded that environmental assessment agencies be held accountable for misdoings in the process of assessment, and indeed, the serious environmental problems that may follow.

In reality, the state of affairs now surrounding Chinese environmental assessment agencies is just a microcosm of what all manner of third-party assessment organizations now face in China. As such organizations have come to the table relatively late in China's developmental history, many are lacking in terms of professionalism and experience, and are therefore utterly incapable of impartially producing accurate assessments. Therefore, while placing strict restrictions upon these agencies is undoubtedly important, the government also needs to furnish them with support and assistance, so that they can live up to the moniker of independent and qualified third-party agencies.

Copyedited by Eric Daly

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