Today the Information Office of China’s State Council released China’s National Human Rights Action Plan for 2016-2020. It is the third such plan that China has released since 2009, and it is intended to dovetail with the country’s 13th Five Year Plan for economic and social development. The Human Rights Action Plan covers a number of different issues, including: economic, social and cultural rights; civil and political rights; rights of ethnic minorities, women, and other minorities; education about human rights; and fulfillment if international human rights obligations. Notably, environmental rights feature prominently in the Action Plan, as well as several rights with regard to judicial and legislative processes that have implications for the fulfillment of environmental rights.
Some notable measures to address environmental rights included in the Action Plan are:
- Adding 27 billion cubic meters of water supply capacity nationwide, ensure that urban water supplies meet required standards, and “make efforts” to improve drinking water supply in rural areas.
- Strict enforcement of the Food Safety Law.
- “Effective implementation” of the Law on Environmental Protection and the Atmospheric Pollution Prevention and Control Law.
- “Improving” environmental public interest litigation and other supporting mechanisms. Environmental public interest litigation was first allowed in China with the entering into force of the Law on Environmental Protection on January 1, 2015.
- Sparing “no effort” to control air pollution. The Plan states: “By 2020 the ration of days with good air quality in cities above the prefecture level shall exceed 80 percent, the density of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) in such cities that have not yet met the required standards shall drop by 18 percent, and the total emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitric oxides shall drop by 15 percent.”
- Strengthening water pollution prevention and control. The Plan states: “By 2020 bodies of water at or above the Grade III level shall surpass 70 percent, with bodies of water at the Grade V level reduced to 5 percent or less, and black or odorous bodies of water in built-up areas of cities above the prefecture level shall be limited to 10 percent or less.” The Plan also calls for “excessive exploitation of groundwater [to] be brought under strict control.”
- Formulating and implementing the Soil Pollution Prevention and Control Plan. The Plan calls for various measure to implement the Soil Pollution Prevention and Control Plan, mainly through pilot projects for the application of soil-pollution control and remedy technologies.
- Improving hazardous waste pollution prevention and control. The Plan calls for “special programs” to address hazardous waste pollution and heavy metal pollution, as well as for capacity building in environment and health risk assessment of toxic chemicals.
- Improving protection of marine resources and environment. Among other things, the Plan calls for “at least 35 percent of the country’s shorelines” to “remain in their natural conditions,” greater protection of rare marine species, and strict controls on fishing intensity.
- Promoting energy infrastructure efficiency. The Plan calls for a 15 percent drop in energy consumption per unit of GDP by 2020, as well as a 23 percent drop in water usage per 10,000 RMB of GDP, and an 18 percent drop in carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP.
- Promoting ecological conservation. The Plan sets out a number of numeric goals for forest coverage, wetlands coverage, nature reserves, and others to be reached by 2020. The Plan also calls for the establishment of a “negative list of industries that are not allowed in key eco-function zones.”
- Improving environmental monitoring and supervision mechanisms.
As mentioned above, the Plan also includes a number of goals with regard to the judicial and legislative processes in China that have large implications for the fulfillment of environmental rights and obligations. These are especially important in the judicial realm since the Law on Environmental Protection, which went into effect January 1, 2015, authorized Chinese social organizations that meet certain criteria to pursue environmental public interest litigation (EPIL) cases through the courts. While the number of EPIL cases is still relatively low, more and more organizations are considering EPIL as a potential avenue to address the environmental challenges in their communities. However, because EPIL is so new in China, there are many issues that still need to be ironed out, such as damages and remedies. You can read here about some of these issues in the context of a recently decided case concerning excessive air pollution in Dezhou.
The Human Rights Action Plan calls for the standardization of “judicial interpretation and case guidance, and unifying the criteria for the application of the law.” Such measures could go a long way toward minimizing the unpredictability of the current EPIL regime. The Plan also seeks to ensure that “the people’s courts exercise adjudicative power independently and in accordance with the law,” a measure seemingly aimed at reducing local interference in court processes. With regard to international human rights obligations, the Plan directs China to “pave the way for ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”
In the legislative realm, the Plan calls for a larger role for the public in the development of laws, regulations, and policies. Specifically, it calls for the “establishment of a mechanism in which the state organs, social groups, specialists and scholars provide argument and consultation for the adjustment of major interests in the process of legislation, thus expanding the channels for the public’s orderly participation in legislation, and improving the mechanisms of soliciting public opinion for the drafting of laws, regulations and provisions, and giving feedbacks to the public.”
And finally, ever since China first introduced its “Going Out” strategy a decade and a half ago, China’s outbound foreign investment has grown exponentially, bringing with it enormous environmental impacts on other countries. The Plan states that Chinese overseas enterprises should “abide by the laws of the countries in which they are stationed, and fulfill their social responsibilities.”