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ClientEarth Communications

18th September 2021


China’s procurators eye public interest litigation on climate change

The deputy chief of China’s powerful public prosecutors (procurators) has suggested the country is considering public interest litigation for climate change, in what would be a ‘major boost’ to the global fight on climate change.

In a speech at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Marseilles, China’s Deputy Chief Procurator Zhang Xueqiao announced for the first time that the Chinese procuratorate is actively exploring the possibility of bringing climate litigation.

Zhang’s remarks were delivered at a side event of the IUCN Conference, which was attended by senior judges, prosecutors and environmental law experts from around the world. During his speech he said: “To supervise and ensure the realization of the targets for "carbon peaking" and "carbon neutrality", we are actively exploring climate change procuratorial public interest litigation. We focus on urging, supervising and coordinating relevant authorities to strengthen the prevention and control of environmental impacts from high energy-consuming and high-emission construction projects, and we are exploring preventive public interest litigation.”

This is important news, because China’s public interest prosecutors have become a key force in the strengthening of environmental rule of law in China – they initiated over 200.000 environmental cases since 2018. What makes their role particularly valuable is the ability to urge government bodies to take action, with a large share of the cases targeting local government agencies.

Dimitri de Boer, ClientEarth’s Chief Representative in China, said: “This could be a major boost to the global fight against climate change. China’s procurators are a powerful body – their role is much more senior than prosecutors in western countries. They hold the key to a vital element of China’s push to carbon neutrality – the ability to hold government bodies to account when they break or fail to implement environmental laws. They could become a major new force for China’s climate transition.”

China is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, but the government has set the targets of peaking carbon emissions before 2030 and achieving carbon neutrality before 2060. The challenge for the central government is to get all the provinces and sectors to reign in emissions, which is proving very challenging for certain provinces and sectors.

The procurators could provide an important contribution to achieving China’s carbon emission targets: by initiating climate change-related cases around the country, they could prevent or reverse the construction of illegal high-emissions projects, ensure the timely retirement of outdated facilities, and ensure that local government and business take the climate transition seriously. Given China’s importance in the global fight against climate change, this could make a difference for the world.

ClientEarth has worked closely with China’s procuratorate since 2016, and we have contributed to this achievement – since the beginning of 2021, we have jointly started scoping how the prosecutors could bring litigation even in the absence of a climate change law. We also prepared a series of video lectures on progress in climate litigation around the world.