BEIJING, April 29 -- China's new environment law encourages non-government organizations (NGOs) to file suit against environmental destruction, but enforcement and litigation costs remain grey areas.
The revised Environmental Protection Law adopted on Thursday takes effect on Jan. 1, 2015, and allows qualified NGOs to take legal action in environmental matters of public interest.
"It's heartening news for us," said Wen Yu, executive director of Green Hunan, an organization protecting water resources in the Xiangjiang River Basin in the central province of Hunan.
The group operates through education and public awareness but could soon make use of legal alternatives. When government or enterprises fail to protect the environment, NGOs should bring them to court, in the public interest. "Just telling people about environmental problems is not enough. They need legal remedies," Wen said.
Green Hunan is among over 300 NGOs empowered by the revised law. Environmental organizations registered with a civil affairs bureau at municipal level or above, which have been operating for at least five years, can initiate public interest litigation.
The new law imposes heavier punishment on polluters, but will it be enough to repair the damage done by decades of reckless development?
In China, environmental disputes are normally resolved through administrative means rather than in the courts. Court proceedings are usually bitter and long, according to Ma Yong of the All-China Federation on Environmental Protection, a government organization.
An environmental case requires professional knowledge and lots of time and money. It is very difficult for individuals, said Li Bo, formerly of Friends of Nature (FON).
Litigation powers of Chinese NGOs were recognized in 2012 by the amended Civil Procedure Law, which allowed "related organizations" to sue polluters, but courts often refuse to accept suits filed by NGOs because the provisions were vague. Specifying the requirements for NGOs to sue is one the more significant revisions in the new law.
More commonly, Chinese NGOs simply report violations to the authorities and let administrative mechanisms run their course, said Ge Feng, program coordinator of FON. "But it is government agencies who decide whether and how to sanction offenders," Ge said.
Wang Canfa of the China University of Political Science and Law who helped draw up the new laws expects to see a large number of environmental public interest cases in 2015.
Public interest litigation might also help cool the mass protests which have been increasing in recent years. These protests are generally staged by citizens who simply fear that their environment will be polluted, said Zhang Xiaoxi, of the China Mangrove Conservation Network.
NOT A CURE-ALL
The Mangrove Conservation Network is qualified to file suit under the revised law, but Zhang is worried about how the law will be enforced, even if it states that "courts should receive public interest litigation on environment issues".
Vice minister for the environment Pan Yue has broadly similar concerns. In a Monday interview with Xinhua, he said the new "powerful" law could still fail without ironclad enforcement.
Wang believes the biggest problem could lie with the courts and wants supervision to ensure that they really do accept and hear appropriate cases. Some courts might be reluctant for fear of getting into trouble, Wang said: "They may feel the defendants, probably polluting companies or government agencies, will be hard to deal with."
What's more, litigation costs could be an unbearable burden for grassroots NGOs, said Zhang. Her group works on a yearly budget of 800,000 yuan (about 125,000 U.S. dollars).
"Representing the public interest, we would be demanding huge amounts of compensation for victims. Correspondingly, the litigation costs and expenses will be colossal," Zhang said.
In 2011, FON became the first and only Chinese grassroots NGO to launch an environmental public interest lawsuit that was accepted by a court. The group demanded compensation from companies which dumped toxic chromium waste in southwest China's Yunnan Province. It almost goes without saying that the case has not been resolved. The court required FON to provide judicial identification of the specific damage the defendants caused and the group could not afford the millions of yuan involved.