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Exporting Vermont's Environmental Expertise

December 18, 2007

by VLS President and Dean, Geoffrey Shields

SOUTH ROYALTON—When 17 Chinese government officials and dignitaries visited the United States recently to learn more about energy efficiency, their itineraries included stops in Los Angeles, New York, Washington D.C. and South Royalton, Vt.

Unlike their other destinations, South Royalton does not have an international airport (and not even a stoplight). It was a trek for the delegation to reach Vermont Law School, especially after their charter bus broke down. But their visit to our rural campus spoke to the work and expertise of our Environmental Law Center and our determination to share that expertise with the rest of the world.

Perhaps that determination is most evident in our partnership with Sun Yat-sen University (SYSU) in Guangzhou, Southeastern China, a bustling city of more than 11 million people that is an epicenter of China’s growing economy, responsible for 40 percent of China’s gross national product.

With the help of a USAID grant secured by U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, Vermont Law School and SYSU are working to train lawyers and judges to enforce the environmental laws and regulations that already exist in China but go largely ignored. That partnership is bolstered by the involvement of the Regulatory Assistance Project, a Vermont-based organization of former utility regulators who have a permanent office in Beijing and provide advice to China’s main energy regulatory body. The Institute for Sustainable Communities, another Vermont-based organization, is also involved in the partnership.

Our common goal with Sun Yat-sen is to create an environmental bar in Southeastern China, a region known for its traditional antipathy of environmental regulation. In the first year of a three-year grant, the partnership educated 109 government leaders in environment and energy law; we taught 173 faculty and students, and one judge from China’s Supreme People’s Court. Additionally, the program trained 32 leaders of businesses and non-governmental organizations and worked to strengthen two legislative proposals pending before the National People’s Congress. We trained directors of local environmental bureaus and even a chairman of a chemical fertilizer company.

With the help of our partnership, SYSU has recently created an environmental and energy law curriculum within its Juris Master degree program. There are plans in the coming year to create a network of environmental law professors and an environmental and energy law research center at SYSU.

I recently traveled to China to see this partnership firsthand. While in Beijing, I met with Pan Yue, the vice minister of China’s State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA). I was prepared for the formalities and banalities that often characterize such meetings, but my experience was much different. Instead, Pan Yue greeted me and our small Vermont delegation with great enthusiasm for our work. He proposed working with our law school’s faculty to gauge the environmental progress that China is making when compared to other large developing nations.My visit also included meetings with the managing partners of three major law firms located in Beijing and Hong Kong, where we discussed the hiring prospects for our law school graduates.

Clearly, the decision to have Beijing host the 2008 Summer Olympics, combined with growing recognition of the threat of global warming, has brought new pressure on China to act. You need only to breathe the foul air in Beijing, or fight the congestion and pollution from trucks in Guangzhou, to understand the enormity of the challenges that are involved. Yet the work of Vermont Law School’s partnership with SYSU, along with my meeting with the vice minister and our students’ commitment to act globally, leaves me with renewed hope.

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