Event Recap
Mark Templeton, Associate Clinical Professor of Law and the Director of the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic, left, and Chen Ruoying, Associate Professor at Peking Law School, right, take questions during the conference Pathways to a Clean Environment, held at Saieh Hall on Friday, Mar. 4, 2016, in Chicago. (Photo by Joel Wintermantle)

When it comes to the environment, China and the U.S. have similar goals: clean air and water and a prosperous economy. But our environmental challenges and systems for confronting them are often unique. How do the various levels of government—national to regional to local—interrelate to develop and implement environmental regulations? What role do the courts play in interpreting and enforcing environmental laws? How do businesses engage in and influence the process? And how can civil society best encourage change? American and Chinese scholars tackled these questions and more as part of an all-day conference hosted by the University of Chicago and Tsinghua University.

Mark Templeton, an affiliate of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC) and director of the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic, opened the event and pointed to this being “a time of opportunity and change” in both China and the U.S. as both countries wrestle with their own environmental challenges—from air pollution in China to high levels of lead in some water systems in the U.S. Throughout the day, the researchers explored similarities and differences between the two countries, and the many lessons that can be gleamed from our distinct experiences.

The first panel focused on the relationship among the central, regional, and local governments and the tensions and nuances in those relationships. Erin Ryan, from the Florida State University Law School and an expert in U.S. federalism, began by exploring the gray area that develops where there is overlap in state and national jurisdictions. Environmental matters are often in this gray area, she said, because of connections between environmental matters, land use and location-specific matters. For instance, how one can best regulate water pollution in Florida is different than the best practices that exist for Illinois.

In China, the Ministry of Environmental Protection and local environmental authorities do not have enough authority, funding (less than $1 billion budget) or staffing (about 3,000 employees), said Zhu Xufeng from Tsinghua University’s School of Public Policy and Management. Though, the University of Chicago’s Dali Yang said the local environmental authorities are beginning to have greater responsibility and are feeling pressure to reduce pollution—leading to the closure of factories. Zhao Huiyu from KoGuan Law School at the Shanghai Jiaotong University also said there is a new trend in China toward more centralization of China’s environmental governance.

Once environmental laws are in place and jurisdiction is understood, there is then the matter of implementing, monitoring and enforcing the laws. The second panel of the day focused on how limits are set for individual facilities and how compliance or non-compliance of those limits is monitored and reported. Daniel Farber from the University of California-Berkeley reviewed the monitoring of pollution in the U.S., noting that, “we do know that air pollution has decreased significantly since the Clean Air Act,” but also that more work could—and is—being done.

China is likewise improving its monitoring and enforcement. Qin Hu, from the Environmental Defense Fund’s China Program, said that over the past four years there has been a transition to greater governmental enforcement of pollution standards in China, leading also to an increase in penalties. Both the U.S. and China are pursuing “next generation compliance” strategies that encourage flexibility and transparency.

To ensure environmental laws are solving the key challenges, evidence is needed especially before the laws are designed. This is where researchers can step in, says Michael Greenstone, the Milton Friedman Professor of Economics and director of EPIC. Greenstone, who gave the keynote lunch talk at the conference, is focused on marrying researchers and policymakers to conduct evidence-based policymaking. This is the type of work happening in EPIC-India. Greenstone gave just one example from that work in Gujarat, India, where a third-party audits system was causing a conflict of interest. Neither the Gujarat environmental regulators nor the auditors themselves thought the status quo system was working. So the Gujarat authorities partnered with EPIC researchers and collaborators to answer a simple question: Does adjusting incentives to break the conflict of interest lead to more truthful auditing, and thus, less pollution?

Greenstone described how he and his team tested a series of reforms that gave auditors of polluting plants the incentives to tell the truth. The reforms led to more accurate reporting, and reduced pollution by 28 percent. The Gujarat government later adopted the rules as law, showing the success such partnerships between policymakers and researchers can have in fostering effective regulations. (Learn more on this research)

Greenstone said partnering with government leaders from the start of a project is important to the project’s success: “Because you are able to target the challenges that need to be answered and…show results in their exact context,” Greenstone said.

Research can play an important role in designing laws. But once they’re made, what role do courts play in interpreting and enforcing them? And, what role do businesses play? These topics dominated the afternoon session, which Mark Templeton led by reviewing the U.S. court system—which, he said, encourages transparency, diligence, conformity and consistency, but also often delays implementation.

In China, a major source of influence in the development, compliance and enforcement of environmental laws are state-owned enterprises that wield considerable political influence. Dali Yang explored whether market-oriented reforms have weakened this influence over time, showing that in the early 2000’s things began to change and anti-corruption efforts began. We’re now at a “turning point in weakening their clout,” Yang said.

Public citizens also play an important role in encouraging or discouraging compliance with environmental laws. Koichiro Ito, an assistant professor from the Harris School of Public Policy, wondered how much people would be willing to pay for clean air. He analyzed demand for air purifiers and found that northern cities, which are more polluted, have a higher rate of demand for purifiers. He found the willingness to pay for an additional year of life expectancy $917. (Learn more about Ito and his research)

Instead of paying for it, citizens can urge changes in environmental regulations through public demonstration. Templeton provided a U.S. case study: the city of Flint, Michigan’s exposure to lead in the drinking water. He explored how environmental organizations, independent experts and citizens created the urgency for action through third-party testing of water quality and blood lead levels, public meetings and demonstrations, and media coverage (Learn more about Flint at our upcoming event).

While citizens can bring on change, they can block it as well. Chen Ling from Tsinghua University and Liu Bing from Beijing Normal University spoke about protests in China and the ‘Not In My Back Yard’ movement, showing that a stubborn middle class should be brought into the process. Informing and empowering them is one way to gain support for change, as well as trust.

The researchers throughout the day highlighted important similarities between the two systems, as well as the many ways China and the U.S. can learn from each other’s experiences. They will be continuing the discussion in a second conference, hosted this time at Tsinghua University in China, in June.

This conference was presented by the University of Chicago and Tsinghua University, through joint efforts and co-sponsorship by the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School, the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Chicago, the Center for Industrial Development and Environmental Governance (CIDEG) at Tsinghua University, the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC), and the Paulson Institute. View the conference agenda and speaker information, here.

Agenda and speaker information…

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This conference is presented by the University of Chicago and Tsinghua University, through joint efforts and co-sponsorship by the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School, the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Chicago, the Center for Industrial Development and Environmental Governance (CIDEG) at Tsinghua University, the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC), and the Paulson Institute.
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