ELI Primary Menu

Skip to main content

Helping NGOs Use Environmental Law to Combat Pollution: ELI Launches Environmental Public Interest Litigation Capacity-Building Project in China

Monday, July 9, 2018
Zhuoshi Liu

Zhuoshi Liu

Staff Attorney

The neck-breaking growth of the Chinese economy since the late 1970s has alleviated hundreds of millions of people from poverty and is one of the biggest economic achievements that the world has ever seen. However, the amazing growth and all of its benefits came at terrible expense to the environment and ecosystems.

According to China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE), 16% of China’s soil has been polluted, 239 of China’s 338 biggest cities failed to reach air quality standards in 2017, and 32.1% of China’s surface water was not swimmable in that year. The pollution has drawn great attention from the increasingly affluent population. To combat pollution and address the concerns of its people, the Chinese state started to give more weight to addressing environmental pollution by adopting a series of legislative and policy measures.

One of these measures was the 2015 amendment to the Environmental Protection Law, the centerpiece of China’s national environmental statutes, authorizing eligible NGOs to file public interest lawsuits against polluters. To build the expertise of Chinese NGOs, ELI launched a capacity-building project to empower these NGOs to effectively participate in public interest litigation.

ELI worked with the China Environmental Protection Foundation and Tianjin University Law School.

From January through May 2018, ELI worked with the China Environmental Protection Foundation (CEPF, a major Chinese NGO active in environmental public interest litigation) to build the capacities of Chinese NGOs, judges, and prosecutors to engage in environmental public interest litigation. With generous support from the Hewlett Foundation and the Tilla Fund, ELI held five workshops, reaching a total of 265 participants from 26 provinces. Tianjin University Law School hosted these workshops in Tianjin, China.

Each workshop lasted three days and featured six lectures or discussion sessions. The faculty at these workshops included international experts and Chinese experts from the MEE, Supreme People’s Procuratorate, Supreme People’s Court, and academia. The international faculty members shared with the participants lessons learned from U.S. environmental citizen suits in the past 50 years. The Chinese experts covered China’s environmental legal framework as well as the diverse and acute challenges faced by NGOs, prosecutors, judges, attorneys, and defendants participating in environmental public interest cases. The Chinese experts brought with them deep insights and wide-ranging perspectives. To help participants network with each other and share valuable insights from both the workshops and their frontline environmental legal work, ELI and CEPF arranged time for small group discussions at each workshop.

The international faculty included John Pendergrass, ELI Vice President of Publications and Programs; Jeff Gracer, ELI Leadership Council Member and a principal at the environmental law firm Sive, Paget & Riesel PC; Leslie Carothers, ELI Visiting Scholar and former Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection; Dan Guttman, Clinical Professor of Environmental Studies at New York University, Shanghai; and Robert Hines, ELI Leadership Council member and a partner at Farella Braun + Martel LLP.

They presented the typical processes and major legal issues in environmental citizen suits, referencing major cases such as Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency, in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that EPA had to decide if CO2 was a danger to the public; Concerned Pastors for Social Action v. Khouri, in which a court issued a preliminary injunction requiring the city of Flint and the state of Michigan to ensure that every resident had either a properly installed faucet filter or sufficient amounts of bottled water for the duration of Flint’s water crisis; Student Public Interest Research Group of New Jersey v. Hercules, in which a court imposed $1.68 million of penalties on the polluter for its 168 violations of water permits over six years; and several other recent cases filed against polluters and government agencies.

Based on these cases, ELI experts introduced best practices for designing litigation strategies, collecting evidence, dealing with scientific uncertainty, using citizen science, structuring remedies, and conducting negotiations. In addition, ELI highlighted how citizen suits in the United States have helped promote a culture of compliance among businesses.

These workshops were highly applauded by the participants and the faculty members. As noted by Judge Han Deqiang of the Supreme People’s Court, who gave lectures on how Chinese judges manage environmental cases, these workshops are tremendously helpful to build the capacities of NGOs, and other members of Chinese environmental communities will benefit from improved environmental accountability and governance.

ELI is planning to organize several other workshops during the rest of 2018. ELI looks forward to continuing cooperation with CEPF, MEE, and other partners to expand this successful knowledge-transfer project and help Chinese environmental communities to achieve sustainable development in one of the biggest economies in the world.