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ClientEarth Communications

24th October 2016

Air pollution
Access to Justice for a Greener Europe

How China is using the law to protect the environment

There has been a significant growth in environmental law cases in China over the past year.

Since 2015, nearly 100 lawsuits have been filed by NGOs and public prosecutors as public interest law has gained a stronger legal grounding in the country.

Revisions to the Environmental Protection Law (2014) have allowed NGOs to sue polluting companies in the public interest.

ClientEarth’s CEO, James Thornton, has been involved in helping to train judges on environmental tribunals in China, in close cooperation with The Supreme People’s Court.

Delivering UKELA’s prestigious annual Garner Lecture last year, Thornton claimed that the development of these tribunals had seen Britain fall behind China on environmental law.

The impact of these public interest cases is beginning to take effect. Significant damages have been awarded in many cases, with approximately £2 million awarded in China’s first major case on air pollution.

This sends a clear message to polluters on the risks of non-compliance.

But some challenges remain for both NGOs and prosecutors bringing public interest cases on the environment.

Some NGOs face obstacles having their cases filed in local courts and technical challenges, such as establishing a link between the cause and effect of environmental problems can be difficult. This is particularly true on air pollution, or where there are multiple polluters. The biggest obstacle for the NGO sector is a lack of financial resources.

That said, the Chinese Government has been active in promoting public interest litigation on the environment and with encouragement from the top courts, it is likely that judges willingness to rule effectively on such cases will continue to improve.

With an increasing number of air pollution cases filed in 2016, more cases being brought against big emitters - including Chinese state owner enterprises -  and new legislation and policies lending further support to NGOs seeking to bring cases, the power of the law to boost environmental enforcement is quickly growing.