Posts Tagged China EIA

Understanding the Chinese EIA System

Introduction

As a result of an increasingly large influx of information, lately I’ve been feeling a need to pull my thoughts together so I’ve decided to begin writing a summary of what I’ve learned at the office so far.  As a junior environmental consultant, I am constantly on a steep learning curve and I always feel like I have much to learn.  Currently in the middle of my first year, I am spending a good deal of time on environmental impact assessments (EIA), so today I’ll start with a review of that.  An EIA is an assessment of the positive and negative effects that a proposed project’s development may have on the environment and ensures that project owners have a comprehensive understanding of potential environmental impacts and necessary future commitments in order to make informed decisions before beginning (or not beginning) development.  The methodology for conducting environmental impact assessments varies between countries, but the development of international standards has increased similarities throughout the world.  The general processes of an international level EIA as well as China specific procedures as I understand them are as follows.

EIA in China: A Brief History

Not surprisingly, the concept of environmental impact assessment is relatively new in a developing country and was first introduced here in 1973.  Implementation of the new in China often starts with a slogan: “三同时”, or the “Three Simultaneities” is an important concept stating that environmental mitigation measures must be designed, constructed, and operated simultaneously with new projects in hopes of preventing, controlling and minimizing pollution.  This principle was established just prior to the EIA concept in 1972 and has since become mandatory for all development projects.  In the past few decades, EIA has grown substantially and many improvements have been made to the original system.  In 1982, the Chinese government has expanded EIA legislation to incorporate the marine environment into the assessment.  Furthermore, an EIA licensing system was proposed to ensure the integrity of EIA practitioners which among other amendments inaugurated the enactment of the Environmental Protection Law (EPL) in 1989.  The EPL provided the foundation for a number of statutes in succession including those that address air, noise, water and solid waste pollution, as well as resource conservation, wildlife management, land-use control, and hazardous material disposal.  By the late 1990s, EIA has become a standard prerequisite to development in China and the adoption of the new EIA Law in 2003 in addition to the renaming of the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) to the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) in 2008 as a symbol of rising administrative authority, constitute a few of the major changes that have occurred to EIA since the enurement of its legislation.

Legislative Framework and Approval Processes

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is governed by the National People’s Congress (NPC), which is the highest authoritative power in the country, and the State Council is responsible for implementing the laws enacted by the NPC.  The MEP is one of several State Ministries and regulates development related environmental impacts under the State Council.  In short, a project owner must carry out an EIA which involves the following key steps: screening and scoping, public consultation, report preparation, expert panel review, then submission to and approval by the MEP.  Likewise, all of the above is prepared for a separate EIA that focuses strictly on marine impacts and is then submitted for approval by the State Oceanic Administration (SOA).  After approval and finalization of the EIA, the project may begin construction.  When construction is complete, the project owner must apply for production trial operation, and then must undergo a completion inspection.  The project is evaluated during inspection via environmental monitoring and once the environmental protection measures have been accepted, only then will the completion of construction be approved and official.  Furthermore, before operation begins the owner must also apply for applicable pollution discharge permits.

IFC and Equator Principles

The NPC and State Council have now promulgated many laws and regulations pertinent to environmental impact assessment, but larger-scale projects are often required to adopt relatively more stringent international criteria such as those suggested by the International Finance Corporation (IFC) as well as the Equator Principles.  The IFC is a member of the World Bank Group that promotes sustainable development by funding projects in the private sector provided that they comply with the “IFC Performance Standards on Social & Environmental Sustainability”.  Project financing is a type of funding where the lender is repaid through profit generated by large-scale projects such as oil refineries, power plants, chemical processing plants and mines.  The Equator Principles are “a financial industry benchmark for determining, assessing and managing social and environmental risk in project financing” based upon the performance standards set forth by the IFC.  Accompanying each performance standard is a mandatory set of guidance notes that must be followed in order to receive funding, but to the benefit of sustainable development, compliance with the above has now become a voluntary initiative for many projects even for those that do not require funding.

Screening and Scoping

The first step of an EIA in China is to undergo a screening process where the MEP or associated Environmental Protection Bureaus (EPBs) classify a project into Category A, B, or C based on the impact significance of expected pollution discharges and proximity to sensitive areas such as places of ecological, archaeological or cultural value.  Class ‘A’ projects require a comprehensive EIA and an environmental impact report (EIR) is prepared.  An environmental impact form (EIF) and an environmental impact registration form (EIRF) are prepared for Class ‘B’ and ‘C’ projects, respectively.  After the screening process, if an EIR is required then the developer commissions a licensed agency to prepare an EIA action outline, which is part of a scoping report that highlights the key issues and impacts of the proposed project as well as the baseline (initial) conditions of the environment where development is to take place.  After the scope of the project has been defined then the consulting agency begins the impact assessment.

Public Consultation and Disclosure

One of the most important aspects of a quality environmental impact assessment is to take into account the opinion of the public.  With this in mind, it is good practice to actively involve the public and incorporate their opinions into the design of a project throughout the entire duration of the EIA process.  As stated in the IFC Performance Standards and in the Equator Principles, consultation should be free, prior and informed, and usually takes place in the form of a questionnaire that is distributed to project affected and interested members of the public as a part of the social impact assessment.  Disclosure is also an important aspect of the EIA process, meaning information about decisions made shall be readily available, which is achieved through the release of a non-technical summary in the language of the local community as well as in a culturally appropriate manner.  Similarly, communities will be able to express their concerns about a developer’s environmental and social responsibilities regarding the risks and adverse impacts of a project through the use of a grievance mechanism also accessible throughout the entire duration of the impact assessment.

Preparing the EIR

The bulk of my responsibility involves the preparation of environmental impact reports.  The contents of an EIR must first contain an outline of the currently existing environmental and socioeconomic conditions at the proposed project’s location, and provide a description of the project’s resources, technologies, and processes.  It shall also list all potential pollutants caused by activities during all stages of the project’s development including both construction and operation.  During this portion of the assessment, all impacts caused by air emissions, wastewater, solid and hazardous waste, soil and noise pollution as well as impacts on ecology, social issues such as land acquisition and involuntary resettlement, cultural and archaeological artifacts and human health will be considered.  The next step is a bit beyond my ability, which is to predict changes in base conditions due to impacts caused by the project.  This usually requires the expertise of an environmental engineer and predictive analyses include air emissions modeling among many others.  Where possible, the project induced environmental impacts are quantified and compared to a set of criteria listed in standards, regulations or other requirements, but often impacts are limited to qualitative assessment as is the case for social and ecological impacts.  Another key feature of an EIR is the identification of mitigation measures that must be incorporated into the project’s design.  Once the consulting agency has determined the baseline conditions, predicted and evaluated the impacts, and recommended mitigation measures, all of the above is reviewed by the expert panel then is submitted to the MEP or SOA as a written report for approval, after which trial operation and inspection/monitoring begins.

References:

Chen, Q., Y. Zhang, and A. Ekroos.  2007.  Comparison of China’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Law with the European Union (EU) EIA Directive.  Environmental Monitoring and Assessment 132: 53-65.

International Finance Corporation’s Performance Standards on Social & Environmental Sustainability.  (April 2006)

The “Equator Principles”.  A financial industry benchmark for determining, assessing and managing social & environmental risk in project financing.  (July 2006)

Coming soon: Criticizing the Chinese EIA System

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