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China, U.S. Must Cooperate to Reduce Global Warming, VJEL Panelists Say

March 2, 2011

China and the United States have vastly different legal systems, but the world's two largest emitters of greenhouse gases must work together to strengthen the Asian giant's environmental laws and to bolster each other's investments in renewable energy.

That was the word from the Vermont Journal of Environmental Law's annual symposium on March 2 at Vermont Law School. Titled "China's Environmental Governance: Global Challenges and Comparative Solutions," the symposium hosted scholars from the United States and China for a day of discussion about current and prospective solutions to environmental issues, including climate change and energy needs. VJEL co-hosted the event with VLS's U.S.-China Partnership for Environmental Law.

Assistant Professor Siu Tip Lam, (at far left in photo), director of the U.S.-China Partnership, welcomed panelists and audience members, saying improving China's environmental rule of law would have a major impact on global warming.Image of VJEL symposium

In the panel discussion on enforcement remedies, Professor Wang Canfa of the China University of Political Science and Law gave an overview of China's environmental enforcement agencies. Each year, more than 3,300 national, provincial, regional and municipal agencies handle millions of plant inspections and complaints about environmental violations that result in some of the worst polluters being shut down and penalized with millions of dollars in fines, he said.

China's rapid industrialization and urbanization have caused severe environmental degradation, including greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming worldwide and hundreds of thousands of deaths a year in China due to exposure to pollution. The crisis has prompted China's leaders to seek new ways to allow steady growth, while protecting the air, land, water and public health. On Monday, China's environment minister warned that unchecked development is harming the country's air, water, soil and could limit long-term economic growth and feed social instability.

Wang, who is a folk hero in China for his efforts to fight pollution, is director of the Beijing-based Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims. He said pollution remains severe, but that some progress is being made. He cited examples of heavy metal refineries, coal-burning power plants and other polluting facilities being shut down because they were poisoning local children, contaminating rivers and harming food production.

Wang said China must remove bureaucratic hurdles, stiffen punishment, improve the quality and quantity of its enforcement agents and take other steps to improve its environmental legal system.

Jingjing Liu, associate director of the U.S.-China Partnership, discussed China's procuratorate, which prosecutes environmental crimes and pursues civil enforcement actions. The procuratorate, which oversees government prosecutors in China, currently focuses on criminal prosecutions in environmental cases, in part, because it lacks a formal civil judicial enforcement role. China has a large number of environmental laws but inadequate enforcement. "There's a huge gap between laws on the books and enforcement on the ground," she said.

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