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A Study on Environmental Impact Assessment Systems in Key Belt and Road Regions and Countries

By The Natural Resources Defense Council

Since the implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), environmental protection has become a major concern for the countries and regions along the BRI. Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is well recognized as an important environmental management tool for promoting sustainable development. EIA has become a requirement for China’s foreign investment and production capacity cooperation under the BRI. It is of great significance for promoting the development of a green BRI, and for strengthening the positive role of EIA in foreign investment and production capacity cooperation.

This study selects three of China’s key neighboring countries, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Vietnam, to carry out research on their EIA system requirements, classification (level) management, content and procedures, document approval processes, postapproval management, and other areas, comparing them with China’s EIA system and management requirements. It focuses on EIAs for cement, iron and steel, power, and other energy-intensive industries and industrial parks. Based on analysis of the successful experience and existing problems of EIAs in these countries, it puts forth countermeasures and suggestions for strengthening EIAs for foreign investment and production capacity construction. These recommendations provide work guidance and management support for improving environmental protection and production cooperation under the green BRI strategy.

1. Comparative Study of EIA Systems

1.1 Legislation and Regulations

China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Vietnam all include EIA in their basic environmental laws, and all countries have normative documents for EIA. Meanwhile, China and Vietnam require strategic environmental assessments (SEA) or plan environmental impact assessments (PEIA), as well as environmental impact assessments (EIA). In contrast, Pakistan and Bangladesh only legally require EIA and initial environmental examinations (IEE). In addition, China has established a series of EIA technical norms for environmental management and environmental protection, covering almost all aspects of EIA work. Pakistan and Bangladesh have also issued a number of guidelines for evaluation and review. Vietnam however has relatively few technical normative documents.

1.2 Management by Classification (Level)

China’s Environmental Protection Law and its Regulations on Plan Environmental Impact Assessment require PEIA and EIA to be carried out. EIAs should be carried out according to the project characteristics and the environmental sensitivity of the region, comprehensively consider all possible environmental impacts, and implement management based on classification. Pakistan, based on the Environmental Protection Act and the Policies and Procedures for the Declaration, Review, and Approval of Environmental Impact Assessments, classifies its requirements for environmental impact assessment according to the investment size or project construction size. Bangladesh follows the Bangladesh Environment Conservation Act and the Environment Conservation Rules, fully considering the industry to which the project belongs and its environmental impacts. On that basis, environmental clearance in Bangladesh will be classified into four levels: Green, Orange-A, Orange-B, and Red, and IEE or EIA will be undertaken accordingly. Vietnam conducts SEA or EIA through the Law on Environmental Protection and the Guidelines on Strategic Environmental Assessment, Environmental Impact Assessment, and Environmental Protection. These regulations and rules are classified as in the below chart.

1.3 Content and Procedure

China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Vietnam have established the main content of their EIAs through laws, regulations and guidelines which include the investigation and assessment of environmental status, environmental impacts prediction and analysis, adverse impacts mitigation measures, environment management and monitoring plans and evaluation conclusions. In addition, China’s and Vietnam’s EIAs require cost-benefit analysis of environmental impacts. Pakistan requires provision of project alternatives. In terms of assessment procedures, China and Vietnam carry out EIAs and PEIAs independently, and China has clearly stated that duplication of EIAs and PEIAs for construction projects should be avoided, while Bangladesh regards IEE as a process preceding EIA. IEE requirements are relatively simple compared to EIA, and mainly include a decision on evaluation tasks, environmental impacts identification, prevention and mitigation measures of major adverse environmental impacts, environmental impacts that need further detailed investigation and assessment, preliminary evaluation conclusions etc.

1.4 Document Approval

In China, the EIA report shall be submitted by the construction company to the competent administrative department of environmental protection for approval according to the provisions of the State Council. The environmental impact registration form shall be filed for records management. As specified by the government, the PEIA report shall be examined by a group of representatives and experts from various relevant departments convened by the environmental protection department, which will provide feedback and conclusions. Projects without EIA approval shall not be approved to start construction.

The authority to review and approve EIAs in Pakistan has been delegated to the provinces. Provincial environmental protection departments then take on all related responsibilities. If an interprovincial EIA is involved, permits from all relevant provinces are required. Provincial environmental courts have the power to impose fines on projects that do not comply with the EIA regulations.

Bangladesh’s Environmental Department has authorized the establishment of technical committees to audit industrial and non-industrial projects by industry environmental standards and guidelines, and standards set forth by the Asian Development Bank and other international organizations. The environmental courts set up Bangladesh’s environmental protection law do not specify whether they accept cases related to EIA violations.

Vietnam’s government has established an Environmental Assessment Committee to review EIA documents according to project level. The EIA reports covering crosssectoral and cross-regional projects should be assessed and approved by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. Special facilities projects involving national security are approved by special administrative departments, and projects that have significant impacts on the nation’s overall environment are subject to special review by Congress.

1.5 Supervision and Management

In China, after the implementation of a PEIA plan, the responsible planning department should organize environmental impacts tracking and assessment in a timely manner. Construction projects need to prepare environmental protection inspection and acceptance reports for project completion. After a project is in operation, the relevant authority shall use random spot checks and implement pollution discharge permit management to achieve environmental protection.

Pakistan requires monitoring of environmental impacts of any given project after its implementation to verify environmental impacts of the project, and the environmental protection department will conduct spot checks every two to three years for projects that have passed environmental audits. In Bangladesh, clearance certificates for Green Projects shall be rechecked and updated every three years, while certificates for Orange-A, Orange-B and Red Projects should be rechecked and updated every year. If the clearance certificate for any given project changes, it needs to be re-evaluated. After project implementation, the Ministry of Resources and Environment, in coordination with local environmental protection departments, will regularly conduct special inspections on the status of environmental management and environmental protection related to the project, and will verify the implementation of the EIA report and its regulations.

2. Investigation and Study on EIAs of High Energyconsuming Industries

2.1 Environmental Standards

Because Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Vietnam, as developing countries, rely heavily on the assistance of developed countries or international organizations in their construction and development, to meet the requirements of international aid organizations, the evaluation requirements and standards for Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Vietnam are mainly adopted in the form of “the host countries’ national standards plus international financial organization standards”. Compared to these three countries, the study found that China’s environmental standards comprehensively cover more areas, have more detailed project indicators, and more stringent implementation.

For example, for thermal power plants, China has special industry environmental standards for waste gas, waste water, and solid waste. Air pollutant emission standards are regulated according to the type of plant (coal power plants, oil power plants, and gas power plants) with different monitoring and emission requirements for each. In contrast, Pakistan has not yet formulated industry environmental standards or technical guidelines for the thermal power sector. Vietnam has formulated the National Technology Specification for Waste Gas in Thermal Power plants, but only three pollutant indicators are included.

For the iron and gas sector, China has regulated various kinds of pollutants during the entire smelting process for the steel industry, including coking, sintering, ironmaking, steelmaking and rolling. Pakistan and Vietnman have relatively limited environmental standards in comparison. The environmental standards for Pakistan’s cement industry are more stringent than those in Vietnam, and detailed monitoring projects and the frequency of this monitoring have been formulated. In comparison to Pakistan and Vietnam, China’s environmental standards for the cement industry are more detailed with stricter requirements.

2.2 Representative Projects

By means of data collation, expert consultation and on-site research, the study investigated six projects invested in and constructed by Chinese entities in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Vietnam, including three thermal power projects, two industrial parks (economic zones) and one coal mine, with a focus on the implementation of EIA and the effects of environmental protection measures. The survey results show that all the surveyed projects strictly abide by the provisions of the EIA regulations and adopt higher environment standards than those of the host country, attaching importance to environmental management during the operation. However, some projects still have problems carrying out EIA, including overly simplified evaluation content, non-rigorous evaluation processes, inadequate public participation and inefficient environmental protection measures during operation.

For example, the environmental impacts mitigation measures of the Vinh Tan Power Plant II project in Vietnam were not comprehensive, resulting in a large amount of dust in the process of fly ash disposal during operation. This seriously affects air quality, causing dissatisfaction and complaints from residents. Although the Chinese side was only responsible for project operation and management in the Barapukuria Coal Mine in Bangladesh, there were some environmental problems such as ground subsidence, water pollution, and excessive noise during operation. Since the environmental impacts of the project were not thoroughly understood and evaluated before the signing of the management contract, the Chinese management team suffered a certain degree of negative impacts and indirect economic losses.

3. Conclusions

The EIA system has become an important environmental management tool for foreign investment and production capacity cooperation among the countries along the BRI, such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Vietnam. The EIA system and management requirements of the three key countries are different from those in China. In terms of EIA system requirements, the number of EIA laws and regulations in the three countries is relatively small, the industries covered by the guidelines are relatively narrow, the implementation norms are relatively simple, and the environmental standards are relatively loose. In terms of evaluation content, China’s EIA focuses on the impacts assessment of environmental quality and the demonstration of prevention measures; Pakistan and Bangladesh focus on the comprehensive analysis of social, health and environmental impacts; Vietnam focuses on analyzing the consistency of industrial development and environmental protection objectives. In terms of approval supervision, Pakistan, Vietnam, and Bangladesh adopt “top-down” supervision and management methods such as periodic review by the state’s environmental management departments, while China adopts both “top-down” and “bottom-up” supervision and management methods such as national management and preparation of follow-up EIA or post-assessment reports.

With the support of foreign investment and assistance, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Vietnam are actively working to live up to international standards, with the provisions and requirements of their EIA systems increasingly strict and complete. The construction of the EIA system is in a stage of rapid upgrading with a large space for development. Pakistan and Bangladesh have incorporated social and health impact assessment into the content requirements of their EIA systems, and Bangladesh and Vietnam have made public participation a necessary part of their EIA systems.

The EIA is no longer only an independent management measure, but has become an important part of lifecycle environmental supervision and management in many countries. Further attention and strengthening of the whole process of environmental management mode and strengthening supervision after EIA approval is conducive to implementing environmental risk prevention measures, improving environmental management performance and promoting the continuous improvement of environmental quality.

4. Recommendations

In order to more effectively promote the implementation of the green BRI strategy, conduct effective investment in environmental protection for foreign projects, and establish a green development image in host countries and regions, it is recommended that Chinese foreign investment and production capacity cooperation pay attention to the following points for environmental protection work:

1.    Clarify the process of EIA approval requirements to ensure smooth development of follow-up supervision. To avoid potential environmental risks and provide constructive suggestions for relevant decision-making, environmental assessment management systems and specific requirements of the host country and relevant international financial organizations should be thoroughly understood. Legal environmental assessment work should be carried out in a timely and voluntary manner.

2.    Enhance the level of environmental management compliance and standardizing international advanced environmental standards. Priority should be given to adopting the best feasible production technology and pollution control technology, striving to achieve and surpass the relevant standards and requirements of the host country, and fully demonstrating and enhancing the environmental sustainability of the project or investment. These steps should take relevant Chinese environmental standards and norms and advanced technologies already mastered in to account.

3.    Keep environmental protection commitments and create a green image. Great importance should be given to stakeholder consultation, media communication and public participation in EIA. Relevant suggestions, public opinions, and media concerns should be timely responded to by giving relevant feedbacks in order to improve the social acceptability of projects and investments.

4.    Conduct cost-benefit analysis of environmental protection and implement a comprehensive assessment of environment and economy. Comprehensive assessment of environmental costs and the benefits of environmental protection measures is essential for conducting a thorough environmental economy study for a project. This analysis is also an important indicator for the comparison and optimization of pollution control and risk control measures, and for evaluating the economic feasibility and environmental rationality of any given project or investment under evaluation.

5.    Attach great importance to risk prevention and control, and actively adopt emergency plans. Strictly implement the procedural requirements of the EIA, and comprehensively clarify and grasp the major environmental impacts, potential environmental risks and possible indirect socio-economic impacts of project investment and industrial park construction.

6.    Actively and continuously improve environmental management so as to achieve green leadership. Continuously follow up and benchmark the latest technology, standards and regulatory changes in related industries, and actively update and improve the environmental management plan and major environmental protection measures implemented by the project.

 

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