Written by Sam Geall.

I am a Research Fellow on Low-Carbon Innovation in China at Science and Technology Policy Research (SPRU), at the University of Sussex, UK and the Executive Editor of chinadialogue, a bilingual website and journal dedicated to open discussion of all environmental issues. I am also editor of China and the Environment: The Green Revolution (Zed Books, 2013), a member of the STEPS Centre, the Sussex Energy Group and on the board of the EU-China NGO Twinning Exchange. I am a social anthropologist with interests in the politics of climate change, China’s environmental movements, citizen science and more. For the past few years, my research and writing has focused on how Chinese journalists, bloggers and NGO activists engage with environmental issues. In my opinion, since a high point a few years ago, the permitted space for this sort of civil-society engagement in China’s green politics has narrowed.

Last year was an interesting time to research these topics: as I wrote in a recent round-up of 2013’s mostly dire environmental events, 2012 had seemed like a breakthrough year for public participation in China – an online campaign led more than 60 cities to publish real-time information about the dangerous small-scale particulate matter known as PM2.5. But unfortunately in 2013, not only did the smog persist, but also the official response to many environmental accidents showed little enthusiasm for greater openness, from the cover-up of a major toxic spill in Hebei to the clampdown on the coverage of two deadly blasts caused by leaking oil from a ruptured oil pipeline in Qingdao. The need for transparency when crises arise was a theme of a Special Policy Study for the China Council on International Cooperation on Environment and Development (CCICED), on which I also worked last year, which concluded that: “Poorly handled environmental accidents can do lasting damage to public trust in government,” and that “full public participation is necessary” to rebuild that trust.

As the Year of the Horse approaches, an interesting conjunction presents itself: sustainable development has been adopted as core state policy in China. The 12th Five Year Plan, from 2011 to 2015, contained ambitious goals – to reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide per unit of GDP by 17%, for example – and committed huge investment into clean technologies. China’s National Energy Administration recently announced plans to install 14 gigawatts of solar capacity and 18 gigawatts of wind power in 2014, surpassing previous forecasts. Environmentalists around the world are enthusiastic, especially since global investment in clean energy is falling. China is “doing it right” when it comes to addressing climate change, said Christiana Figueres, the United Nations’ top climate official, earlier this month, citing the country’s support for solar energy technologies and energy efficiency. “They’re not doing this because they want to save the planet,” Figueres added. “They’re doing it because it’s in their national interest.”

Yet it’s worth sounding a note of caution: as will be familiar to China-watchers, the existence of plans and policies is no guarantee of their effective implementation. As the Five-Year Plan nears its conclusion, the country is lagging behind on that 17% carbon intensity target, having only achieved a 6% drop by the end of 2013. Effective environmental governance in China has been hampered not only by structural problems but also a weak and restricted civil society that could help to supervise the enforcement of environmental laws and regulations at the local level. Furthermore, public support for some “low-carbon development” goals is far from certain: in July 2013, authorities in Jiangmen, in Guangdong, cancelled the construction of a $6 billion uranium processing plant – described as a green energy project – after residents protested in the streets. These social dimensions of environmental problems in China will be the main focus of what I track in this column, in the year before crucial UN climate talks in Paris in 2015. However, I also plan to write about other related themes that interest me: from debates around scientific integrity in China, to public opinion about GM foods; from China’s New Left academics, to new forms of online contention. Please be in touch in the comments or on Twitter.

Sam Geall is Executive Editor of chinadialogue and Research Fellow on Low-Carbon Innovation in China at SPRU, University of Sussex. He is editor of the recently published China and the Environment: The Green Revolution. He Tweets @samgeall.