As part of its 2022–2023 Special Policy Study on Collaborative Mechanism for Pollution Reduction, Carbon Reduction, Green Expansion and Growth, CCICED is researching how China’s prosecutors could conduct public interest litigation to support the climate targets.
On June 5, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) issued the first set of 10 “typical cases” brought by prosecutors for carbon peaking and neutrality. This action is the clearest signal yet that prosecutors nationwide are encouraged to play their part in achieving China’s carbon peaking and neutrality targets.
From 2018 to 2022, China’s prosecutors have brought around 400,000 environmental public interest litigation cases: a system that is unique to China and that has played a key role in enforcing environmental laws across the country since it was formalized in 2017. In September 2021, Deputy Chief Procurator Zhang Xueqiao said in a speech at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) conference in Marseilles that China’s procurators are actively exploring public interest litigation on climate change. Earlier this year, the Supreme People’s Court issued a guiding document for climate-related cases, further opening the door for prosecutors to bring such cases.
Climate litigation is making important contributions to climate governance worldwide, with some very high-profile cases like the Urgenda Foundation case in the Netherlands. The list of 10 typical cases released by the SPP is intended to inspire Chinese prosecutors to take further actions to address climate change. They include cases focused on non-carbon dioxide greenhouse gas emissions, damage to natural carbon sinks, data falsification, and more. For instance, prosecutors of Shuyang County, Jiangsu Province, litigated a civil public interest case against a company that tampered with the parameters of its environmental monitoring facilities to illegally emit nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide, causing ecological damage amounting to CNY 6 million. The prosecutors supported the ecological damage compensation procedure by the local environmental bureau and urged the company to pay compensation fees and take measures.
China’s public interest prosecutors tend to operate in an understated manner, but they bring many thousands of cases every year—and the cumulative effect of these cases is transformative. Over 90% of the cases they bring are against government departments. In another recent typical case, prosecutors in Zhidan County, Shaanxi Province, urged local governments’ environmental departments to perform their supervisory duties on boil-off gas (BOG) generated from transport tankers. Methane, the main component of BOG, is one of the primary greenhouse gases and contributes significantly to climate change.
After the pre-litigation consultation with prosecutors, local governmental departments jointly issued the Work Plan to Further Strengthen the Management of BOG Discharge from LNG Transportation Vehicles. Within a year, local public security authorities and environmental departments carried out several rounds of joint enforcement inspections under the supervision of prosecutors to ensure that there were no illegal BOG emissions from transport tankers.
In the coming months and years, we expect prosecutors to bring thousands of climate-related cases, which will impact the way important decisions are made at all levels in China, including local government planning decisions and approvals for high-emission projects, state-owned company investment decisions and operational policies, private-sector business decisions, and the management of natural carbon sinks, etc. This could mark a new phase in China’s climate governance, with the law playing an increasingly important role.
To note, Huang Runqiu, China’s Minister of Ecology and Environment, went on an environmental inspection tour last week to check on pollution control in industrial enterprises. Data falsification and illegal emissions were discovered, and local prosecutors might quickly follow up. In addition to the mentioned climate cases, on June 6, the SPP released 10 typical cases of prosecutors supporting central environmental inspections. It is promising that prosecutors will bring more climate cases concerning disciplinary inspections like this one.
ClientEarth is a key environmental partner of the SPP, and we have suggested that China’s public interest prosecutors are in a strong position to contribute to China’s climate transition. In past years, we have held joint seminars, supported overseas visits, conducted a joint study on preventive environmental public interest litigation, and provided reference materials on public interest litigation on climate change, including a booklet of 10 landmark climate cases from around the world.
The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of CCICED.