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Context and Systems: Thinking More Broadly About Effectiveness in Strategic Environmental Assessment in China


China is an illustrative—and extreme—case of the difficulties of balancing the pursuit of economic, social, and environmental objectives. In 2003 it adopted a form of Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) for its plans and programs (referred to here as PEIA) with the aim of moving towards greater environmental sustainability. The literature has explored primarily the issue of methods and legal procedures. This research contributes to the analysis of PEIA through a different set of interpretative lens. Drawing on recent developments in the theory and practice of SEA, I propose a conceptualization of SEA effectiveness that combines direct and incremental impacts, and a need for context-specific systems as a way to focus on the relationship between assessment, planning, and their context, and thus maximize effectiveness. This framework underpins the analysis of China’s experience, which I explore with the help of interview material and the literature. The result is an evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of PEIA in terms of its purpose, assessment concept, process, and methods. The detailed analysis of six aspects of the context helps explain the origin of such shortcomings, and identify opportunities for its improvement. I conclude defining elements of a context-specific system for SEA that seeks to maximize the opportunity for incremental, as well as direct, effectiveness in China.

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I gratefully acknowledge the support of the Portuguese Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia and the Chinese University of Hong Kong for Visiting Scholar status in 2007. I would like to thank Andrea Ricci for his insightful comments, as well as the three anonymous reviewers for their many useful suggestions. Any shortcomings remain my own responsibility.

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Correspondence to Olivia Bina.

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Bina, O. Context and Systems: Thinking More Broadly About Effectiveness in Strategic Environmental Assessment in China. Environmental Management 42, 717–733 (2008).

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  • Strategic Environmental Assessment
  • Effectiveness
  • System
  • Context
  • Purpose
  • Strategy
  • China