Authorities Issue Circular To Promote Environmental Information Disclosure

February 4, 2013

Environmental authorities issued a circular in October 2012 that potentially could expand and deepen information disclosure to the public, including information about environmental impact assessments. The circular, however, has limitations and omissions that constrain environmental transparency, especially at the grassroots level.

On October 30, 2012, the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) issued the Circular on Taking Steps To Strengthen Environmental Open Government Information Work (MEP circular), in order to implement the State Council Information Office 2012 Open Government Information Focal Points Work Plan (Work Plan), issued in April 2012. The Work Plan included environmental protection as one of the key areas targeted for advancement in information disclosure. The MEP circular directs various MEP departments, agencies, and directly subordinate work units, as well as environmental protection departments (bureaus) in provinces, and municipalities directly under the Central government, among other environmental protection bodies at a similar level, to take steps to advance environmental open information in several areas and to strengthen institutional capacity to implement disclosure measures. The MEP circular clearly outlines specific types of information that authorities may make public. Previously in 2007 and 2008, MEP also issued documents outlining definite topics subject to public information requests: the 2008 Ministry of Environmental Protection Information Guide (Guide), and the 2008 Ministry of Environmental Protection Open Information Catalogue (First Group) (Catalogue). The MEP provided the Guide and the Catalogue after MEP's predecessor SEPA issued the Provisional Measures on Open Environmental Information in 2007, which was drafted according to the Regulations of the People's Republic of China on Open Government Information adopted by the State Council in 2007.

Potential To Improve Information Disclosure
If fully implemented, the MEP circular has the potential to expand the range and depth of information that designated authorities could disclose to the public. The MEP circular calls upon authorities to:

  1. "Advance transparency regarding environmental examination and approval processes and results" and "expand the scope of publicity regarding major projects involving the public interest and extensively solicit opinions from the public" (item 2.1).
  2. "Proactively disclose abridged versions of EIA reports, the results of environmental impact assessment (EIA) document reviews, the results of completed environmental checks and approvals for construction projects, and information regarding the acceptance of construction project documents" (item 2.1.3). The Catalogue and the Guide issued by the MEP in 2008 did provide for some disclosure of EIA related information, but did not stipulate that versions of EIA reports themselves could be made public. In August 2012, however, the minister of environmental protection announced in a speech that environmental protection agencies at all levels should post abridged versions of environmental assessment reports online starting on September 1, 2012.
  3. "Make public information about ‘supervisory-type’ monitoring results from key pollution sources in a timely manner" (item 2.2.2). (If implemented, this item potentially could contribute to greater transparency of pollution data by officials. The Catalogue and the Guide issued by the MEP in 2008 did not specify that authorities could disclose monitoring results from specific pollution sources).
  4. "Supervise and urge enterprise environmental information disclosure according to law" (item 2.2.3). This is the first time that environmental authorities have been given the duty to supervise and urge company information disclosure. If implemented, this potentially could help to improve company and/or official disclosure practices.

The MEP circular also calls upon authorities to strengthen transparency regarding extremely severe and serious sudden environmental incidents and to publicize incident management measures in a timely manner (item 2.3). In addition, the MEP circular calls upon environmental protection departments to improve implementation of disclosure measures, to expand the scope of information released proactively (item 3), and to set up efficient ways to make information public (item 3.1).

Limitations of the MEP Circular
While the MEP circular includes items that potentially could improve environmental transparency, it also has limitations:

  1. The document is only a circular, which is an administrative rule that has normative value and is used to communicate matters, give enforcement directives, and convey personnel changes to subordinate bodies. It does not have the force of a ministerial order (mingling), which is a coercive administrative measure. (For more information on "normative documents" and the hierarchy and purposes of various administrative rules, see the Measures for Handling Official Documents in State Administrative Organs (Article 9) and the Mansfield Dialogues in Asia Article, pp.72-73.) MEP authorities have not updated the 2008 Catalogue and Guide to reflect this circular's contents.
  2. The circular appears to be relevant only for departments, agencies, and directly subordinate work units of the MEP, as well as provincial-level environmental departments (bureaus). It does not seem to apply to environmental protection departments (bureaus) below the provincial level, which may exempt those bodies from the specified environmental disclosure requirements, potentially limiting improvements in transparency at the grassroots level.
  3. The circular directs authorities to provide some information about processing EIA reports, but it only provides for disclosure of the abridged versions of EIA reports rather than the complete reports (item 2.1.3).
  4. The item calling for improvements in proactive information disclosure regarding sudden environmental incidents refers only to extremely severe and serious incidents (item 2.3) (these are labeled level 1 and 2 incidents). (For more information on the four levels of incidents, see this MEP measure.) The circular does not appear to apply to the two other levels of incidents (relatively large and common—levels 3 and 4), which, if they occur, may still pose environmental harms at the local level. The specific sub-items appear to focus mainly on strengthening disclosure of and coordinating authorities' response measures (section 2.3, sub-items). The Guide issued by the MEP in 2008, already indicates that environmental protection officials are to proactively issue information on incident emergency response plans, as well as information regarding incidents that take place, (related) projections, and management measures. Previously, in January 2011, the Ministry of Environmental Protection issued a ministerial order, the Sudden Environmental Incident Information Reporting Measure, which outlines official requirements for reporting environmental incidents to higher levels in the government. The coercive measure, however, contains no requirements regarding disclosure of information to the public.

The MEP circular directs authorities to strengthen "guidance of public opinion" regarding specific information that is of high interest to a wide population. After authorities disclose important information, they are to "closely follow" and "correctly guide public opinion," as well as "anticipate and address society's reactions" and "issue related information in a timely manner" (item 3.2). The particulars of "guiding public opinion" are not provided. (For reference, however, this 2009 CECC analysis provides information on the link between “guiding public opinion” and Party dominance in the media sector.)

For more information on environmental information transparency, see Section II—The Environment in the CECC 2012 Annual Report (pp.117-118).