Jul 31 2017

Environmental Policy and Governance in China

Reviewed by Jessica Gordon, Massachusetts Institute for Technology 

China faces severe environmental challenges and its environmental policies and governance arrangements are in the process of changing.


edited by Hideki Kitagawa Environmental Policy and Governance in China, Springer, 2017, 198 pp.

China is facing severe environmental challenges including pervasive water, air and soil pollution. To address these issues, its environmental governance regime has undergone significant transformations. These include the emergence of new laws and regulations, new enforcement strategies, and increasing participation of the public and non-state actors. This edited volume provides a predominately historical and legal analysis of China’s unique environmental governance system.

The first chapter by Kitagawa reviews recent environmental policy reforms that have been implemented during the current Xi government. In Chapter 2, Wang examines the detailed changes in the drafts and final texts of the environmental protection law. This includes an overview of the latest, 2014 revisions, providing a useful historical perspective. In Chapter 3, Zhao examines the limited laws and regulations dealing with contaminated land, pointing out, for example, that there are no guidelines regarding soil pollution monitoring. In Chapter 4, Jin offers a legal analysis of the Target Responsibility System, which was created to ensure local compliance and enforcement of national policy in an effort to address widespread implementation gaps. In Chapter 5, He offers an economic analysis of coal resource taxation as a means of reducing fossil fuel use.

In Chapter 6, Sakurai presents a case study of a class action lawsuit brought by pollution victims, making it clear that the absence of an independent judiciary is significant given the ways in which various political bodies influence outcomes. In Chapter 7, Zhang examines environmental petitions, a means for citizens to report issues to the Chinese Communist Party. This is a long-standing alternative to litigation. Given the system’s current shortcomings, and drawing on cases from Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, the author suggests China ought to establish a new environmental dispute resolution system. In Chapter 8, Wang demonstrates how legislation related to Environmental Impact Assessment has provided increased opportunities for public participation. In Chapter 9, Chiashi looks beyond the state, at the role of environmental NGOs in industrial and air pollution control. In Chapter 10, Aikawa takes a historical look at the evolution of environmental NGOs in China.

Interestingly, several chapters focus on the increasing role of public participation, and its limitations, in environmental governance in China. Jin and Wang focus on environmental information disclosure requirements in conjunction with Environmental Impact Assessment requirements. Sakurai describes how the plaintiffs in the class action lawsuits formed an environmental advocacy organization, although it was later shut down. Chiashi and Aikawa focus on the increasing role that NGOs play in environmental policy-making and implementation.

Environmental Policy and Governance in China demonstrates the extensive environmental challenges that China still faces. The book chapters can easily be read individually, depending on the interests of the reader, and understood even by those unfamiliar with China’s legal system. The book includes extensive background information. However, the volume is most likely to engage those with a long-standing interest in China.

Jul 31 2017

Democratizing Global Climate Governance

Reviewed by Elise Harrington, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Can global climate governance be more democratic? Assessing deliberative democracy and networked governance in pursuit of global climate goals. 


by Hayley Stevenson and John S. Dryzek Democratizing Global Climate Governance, Cambridge University Press, 2014, 256 pp.

In Democratizing Global Climate Governance Hayley Stevenson and John Dryzek argue that global climate governance can be improved by engaging civil society in multilateral climate negotiations and in the growing networks of actors involved in climate change policymaking. Using critical discourse analysis, the authors examine the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC); discussions surrounding the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit; and the work of networks of corporations, nongovernmental organizations, community groups, foundations, government and international organizations. Stevenson and Dryzek focus on discourse (and language) as a key mechanism linking a range of actors. While discourse analysis is a unique contribution to the literature on global climate governance, their discussion of the tension and potential synergy between the formal UNFCCC activity and less-formal networks encourages readers to rethink the role of democratic deliberation in climate governance.

The first two chapters introduce the authors’ argument along with a theory of deliberative democracy as it applies to global climate governance. Chapter 2 unpacks the seven components of their deliberative framework as well as four basic discourses: mainstream sustainability, expansive sustainability, limits and boundaries, and green radicalism. Chapter 3 focuses on discourse analysis in public spaces, assessing four discussions related to the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit: the World Business Summit on Climate Change, the Business for the Environment Summit, Klimaforum09, and the World People’s Summit on Climate Change and Mother Earth. The authors argue that “the democratization of global climate governance can be advanced in the absence of centralized, comprehensive and effective global agreement. […] this requires recognizing and harnessing the coordinating function that discourses play in political life” (p. 59). The subsequent chapters build on this notion by illustrating how a systems approach to deliberation empowers discourse in public spaces.

Chapters 4 and 5 each discuss a different empowered space, or a space where institutions make collective decisions and ensure some form of public accountability. Chapter 4 analyzes the UNFCCC as a formal empowered space and primarily finds support for mainstream sustainability discourse, in particular for “ecological modernization and climate marketization.” Chapter 5 analyzes the informal empowered space created by public partnerships, public-private partnerships and private initiatives. The networks of actors in this space differ from the UNFCCC networks. They obtain authority by filling gaps in regulation, identifying common interests and using peer pressure to support voluntary rules and standards. Three networked governance examples are analyzed in some detail: the Clean Technology Fund, the Climate Technology Initiative’s Private Financing Advisory Network and the Verified Carbon Standard. Based on a “deliberative democratic deficit” in these networked spaces, the authors argue for stronger linkages between the UNFCCC and networked governance.

Chapters 6 and 7 examine the deliberative components of transmission and accountability. These two features of deliberative democracy are vital to the way ideas from public spaces are transmitted to empowered spaces and link accountability back to the public spaces. Yet, transmission and accountability tend to be weak in both formal and networked governance for climate change. Chapter 8 proposes a number of ways to strengthen transmission and accountability. Finally, chapter 9 concludes with a discussion of reflexivity in climate governance, highlighting opportunities to disrupt the status quo. Missing is a discussion of the part political power and financial resources play in forming and propagating the discourses present in the UNFCCC and networked governance. Democratizing Global Climate Governance provides researchers and practitioners with a whole new set of questions to ask.

Jul 31 2017

Water: Abundance, Scarcity, and Security in the Age of Humanity

Reviewed by Andrea Beck, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 

Global water governance is based on the hidden philosophy of “normal water”––a finding with important ethical and ecological implications for water management in the Anthropocene. 

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by Jeremy J. Schmidt Water: Abundance, Scarcity, and Security in the Age of Humanity, New York University Press, 2017, 308 pp.

Is water governance guided by a comprehensive philosophy? Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, geographer Jeremy J. Schmidt answers this question in the affirmative: water governance is based on a hidden philosophy which conceptualizes water as a “resource” to be managed in support of liberal ways of life. Rooted in a particular confluence of early American geology and anthropology, this view of water has attained global dominance through strategies of international development. It has become accepted to the extent that its ethnocentric and utilitarian foundations now seem all but forgotten within the global water governance mainstream. Thinking about water as a resource is commonplace today. Schmidt seeks to challenge this complacency by opening our eyes to the fact that what appears to be “normal” is in fact a normative choice.

The bulk of the book traces the origins and subsequent globalization of the philosophy of “normal water.” Schmidt provides insights into the roots and evolution of the “narrative of abundance, scarcity, and security,” while also discussing the implications of this narrative for water management in the Anthropocene. While the accounts of the thinking of protagonists such as John Wesley Powell, William John McGee, David Lilienthal and Gilbert White are illustrative and engaging, frequent philosophical excursions render the book somewhat impenetrable for readers unfamiliar with the philosophical works of Hannah Arendt, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Søren Kierkegaard and several others.

If the book is meant to showcase the results of an interdisciplinary intellectual exercise, its purpose has been achieved. However, Schmidt seeks to go further, spelling out the applied implications of his work. What, specifically, are the problems with viewing water as a resource (a very fundamental question)? What are the mechanisms by which alternate place-based approaches to water are being oppressed or marginalized by “normal water?” Beyond recommendations addressed to social scientists (e.g., disrupt the colonial project of water management within academia, relativize existing “stopping rules”), what are possible action avenues for practitioners committed to promoting water justice and equity in the field? Addressing these questions more explicitly and extensively could enhance the transformative impact of the book and make its important message accessible to a wider audience.


Jul 31 2017

The Privatisation of Biodiversity? New Approaches to Conservation Law

Reviewed by J. W. Chun, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Creating new ways of thinking about the value of biodiversity and hence new opportunities for biodiversity law and regulation

The Privatisation of Biodiversity

by Colin T. Reid and Walters Nsoh The Privatisation of Biodiversity? New Approaches to Conservation Law, Edward Elgar Publishing, 2016, 275 pp.

Despite many laws and policies aimed at protecting biodiversity, biodiversity losses continue to mount. Colin T. Reid and Walters Nsoh explore biodiversity regulation from a new perspective: as a value-creating opportunity rather than a set of restrictions. Their aim “is to identify not a single favoured solution, but the questions which have to be answered in designing a scheme that will meet the needs of the specific policy goals and the legal and physical context in which the mechanism is to be deployed.”

Reid and Nsoh divide their book into two sections. The first offers an overview of existing laws and regulations. The authors review some of the most “pervasive” issues surrounding various mechanisms used to conserve biodiversity. Although not exhaustive, their list includes uncertainty, exchangeability and units of trade, which must be considered in the design and implementation of new, market-oriented mechanisms. These pervasive issues have to be taken into account no matter what options are considered for better managing natural capital.

The second section of the book introduces a wide range of biodiversity protection mechanisms and discusses their practicalities. For each, the relevant legal construct and the actors typically involved are discussed. The authors emphasize that various mechanisms could almost always be applied. However, they argue that a more open, accountable, and holistic approach would be preferable.

The authors admit that there are limitations to their approach; for instance, it is rooted in “Western” concepts of law (i.e., they have a UK perspective). This may undermine its viability in certain contexts, limiting its application in locations where new mechanisms are needed the most. The Privatisation of Biodiversity is carefully organized, drawing attention to the importance of looking at biodiversity from a number of angles, particularly through a lens of market-driven mechanisms. The book provides a starting point for those who want to think about local biodiversity in new ways.

Jul 31 2017

Where the River Flows: Scientific Reflections on Earth’s Waterways

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma

This review was first published in Current Science, July 10, 2017.

While the United States may have leveled off its water use to 1970 levels, in spite of both population and economic growth, the health of its rivers continues to remain a concern.



by Sean W. Fleming, Where the River Flows: Scientific Reflections on Earth’s Waterways,  Princeton University Press, 2017, 216 pp.

Its global prevalence notwithstanding, the state of water in nature reflects our inadequate understanding of its intricate flow dynamics. Despite its abundance, access to water eludes millions of people, and the stress on the ecosystems involved continues to grow. More than one billion people lack access to clean water, and in the near future, the global demand for water will be twice what it is now. With no substitute for this life-nurturing fluid, it is more important than ever that we ask the right questions so we can get past the current muddle.

All rivers are alike in the broadest sense, but they have different meandering curves, diverse aquatic fauna and distinct morphological features. Unraveling this distinctiveness and the (unknown) variables that contribute to it are the challenges that confront hydrologists. Existing watershed models are insufficient. Indeed, many of the best modelers don’t rate their results too highly. Part of the problem, in the words of Belgian Nobel Laureate Ilya Prigogine, rests on our innate desire to simplify complexity. Unfortunately, reducing elaborate systems into simpler subsystems doesn’t necessarily help: we end up learning more about less. Such an approach is particularly unhelpful when we are trying to understand river hydrology. The uncertainty involved is a function of a great many environmental and social factors that shape stream flow and underlying aquifers.

Sean Fleming’s Where the River Flows calls for a paradigm shift. He favors a radical departure from the usual disciplinary thinking; indeed, since rivers are a reflection of the profound interrelationships between landscapes, ecosystems and societies, no disciplinary perspective can adequately address their complex dynamics. He believes that fractal mathematics along with chaos and information theory can be used to generate new insights into the overall patterns of river systems. As anthropogenic impacts on the natural environment (like climate change) accelerate, there is a need for both finer detailed forecasts (e.g., will my farm get rain next week?) and big picture understanding (e.g., will the river topple its banks this coming season?). New insights in both dimensions are critical to understanding the common but differentiated patterns that each river generates in its unique geomorphological setting.

Unfortunately, a counter narrative persists, making it harder to get a better sense of river hydrology. Damming, diversion and contamination pose formidable challenges, beyond the normal ecological complexity, to figuring out how to sustain healthy stream flows for human welfare and ecosystem survival. Be it the Mississippi, Ganges or Yangtze, river degradation has thrown off balance the delicate equilibrium between ever-increasing human populations and their relentless aspiration to stay adequately watered. The United States may have leveled off its water use to 1970 levels in spite of both population and economic growth, but the health of its rivers continues to remain alarming. While every drop of water pumped from the Colorado river is used at least 17 times, which may sound like good news, the net impact of all that pumping on the Gulf of California has grossly disrupted the hydrological cycle. River water hasn’t reached the delta since 1960.

Fleming calls for an entirely new way of viewing the natural environment, suggesting that we need to process vast and complex information to reconceptualize and understand the dynamics of the natural environment. But can reams of hard data and new quantitative modeling techniques give us a better sense of river systems that are not only dynamic but also living entities? As the need for more accurate, precise and consistent forecasts move center stage in our dealings with the rivers, somehow cultural perspectives must also be included. It is not clear how we can convert human observations into actionable information.


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