The Supreme People’s Court of China’s recent guidance document on climate change-related cases is a milestone for climate governance in the country. It could encourage China’s public interest prosecutors to add climate cases to the thousands of environment challenges they bring every year.
On February 17, 2023, the Supreme People’s Court of China (SPC) issued a guidance document regarding climate change cases that is applicable to all courts in the country. It is a milestone in the application of the law for climate governance in China. It follows the SPC’s initial classification of climate cases in 2020 and its championing of the Kunming Declaration of the World Judicial Conference on Environment in 2021—and it reconfirms the SPC’s consistent interest in addressing climate change.
The document gives specific guidance on hearing a wide variety of cases and disputes that are relevant to the climate transition. These cases fall into categories of the green development transition; restructuring of heavy industry; establishing a clean, low-carbon, safe and efficient energy system; and improving the carbon market. It also aims to enhance industrial restructuring, pollution control, and ecological protection, as well as balancing development and emissions reductions, short- and long-term carbon goals, and the relationship between the government and the market.
The guidance is advanced by global standards, in the sense that it recognizes that many types of disputes could be relevant to addressing climate change. The document itself specifies 17 types of climate-related cases and was also coupled with the release of 11 case examples.
Titled Opinions of China’s Supreme People’s Court on the Complete and Accurate Implementation of the New Development Concept and the Provision of Judicial Services to Actively and Steadily Promote Carbon Peaking and Carbon Neutrality, it highlights a steady low-carbon and just transition of high-energy-consuming and high-emission companies, public participation in renewable energy development construction projects, and multiple types of green finance cases. It mentions that listed companies and bond-issuing enterprises must ensure investments in climate-friendly, green, and low-carbon projects.
The guidance also stresses the integration of the environmental rule of law at the national level relating to foreign affairs, establishing a sharing mechanism regarding climate cases with foreign countries, continuously deepening international cooperation and exchange in the field of environmental justice, and actively participating in global governance to address climate change.
A week after the issuance of the guidance, the Director General of the Climate Department of China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment MEE commented on the new SPC opinions. He confirmed that MEE and relevant departments are revising and improving draft laws and actively carrying out work related to specialized legislation that addresses climate change and that they will incorporate the requirements and guidance on case handling specified in the opinion. For example, the Interim Regulations on the Management of Carbon Emission Trading will come out soon.
The Opinions guidance is the first comprehensive document stipulating that judicial services should play a role in supporting carbon peaking and carbon neutrality efforts. It provides a clear path of climate case exploration, encourages the effective implementation of climate-related provisions in the existing environmental legal framework, and facilitates the development of climate laws and regulations. More importantly, it signals the dedication of China’s judiciaries to systematically boosting carbon cases and climate litigation, using the power of law to safeguard the achievement of the dual carbon goals.
We hope the document may also encourage China’s public interest prosecutors, who currently bring tens of thousands of legal challenges for the environment every year, to continue to bring climate-related cases.
Dimitri De Boer, Special Advisor, CCICED; Regional Director for Asia, ClientEarth;
Jiang Boya, nature and climate lawyer, ClientEarth.
These are the views of the authors and not necessarily CCICED’s.