Views from the World
Towards Ecological Civilization: China?fs Answer to Environmental Challenges
Qi Ye, Director, School of Public Policy and Management, Tsinghua University
(Keizai Koho, May 2008 issue)

Each year, on World Environment Day, the Chinese Government issues a report on the state of the nation?fs environment. The last report, released in June 2007, confirmed a long-standing concern among the public and, to a great extent, the international community as well, that China?fs environment has shown little sign of improvement from an overall trend of deterioration. One out of every five cities in the country suffers from serious air pollution; two thirds of all cities experience shortage of drinking water; one third of the land area is affected by acid rain; one third of land suffers from soil erosion and desertification; more than 90% of natural grasslands are degraded and the overall biodiversity is threatened. Moreover, not only is China the second largest green house gas emitter in the world after the United States, projections are that due to a number of geographical, social, and climatic conditions, China will be hit by climate change much harder than many other countries. The rapid deterioration of the nation?fs environmental quality and depletion of its natural resources are threatening the lives and health of the largest population in the world and the very potential for sustained growth of the economy.

China once vowed to avoid repeating the ill-fated path of the serious pollution during the industrial development which occurred in most of the developed countries. Like a remorseless curse, the industrialized countries of Europe, the U.S. and Japan all had a dark period of misery of terrible pollution and other environmental problems during their rapid growth of industrialization. Unfortunately, China is following exactly the same footprints, except in a much greater scale: every sin and guilt of the pollution is multiplied by a factor, due to the size of the population. Is this the curse of industrialization?

Now the question is: can China get out of the muddy ground and clean up the environment and prevent new pollution as Japan, the U.S. and Europe have succeeded in recent decades? The answer is positive, but the approach to environment and development has to be new and innovative. First, China will never afford a standard of living of the developed world that depends on luxurious consumption of natural resources. Neither will the world. Taking oil consumption for example, if China ever approaches such a consumption level as that of the United States, it would well exceed the total oil consumption of the world. For carbon dioxide emissions, if China?fs emission level is the same as that of the U.S., three quarters of the world?fs carbon emissions would come from China alone. Indeed, part of the reason why the developed world now enjoys good environmental quality is that much of polluting production has been shifted to the developing world. China that bears much of the burden as a manufacturing ground for the world finds it hard to further transfer its polluting industries to other places in world. China must transform its industrial system so as to maximize resource use efficiency and minimize environmental impact. This is the direction that the nation sets forth to go: to build a resource efficient and environmentally friendly society

The way that China deals with the environment and development has changed profoundly in recent years when the term of scientific development was coined. This concept was proposed to target many social, economic and developmental issues. A key issue is that the severe environmental consequences brought by rapid economic development are threatening the sustainability of development itself and are granting challenges to the harmonious relationship between man and nature. The concept calls for people-oriented, comprehensive, coordinated and sustainable development. Sustainable development is not a new concept. In fact, it was listed as China?fs national strategy for development in the early 1990?fs, shortly after the United Nations World Summit on Environment and Development in Rio, Brazil in 1992. However, implementation of this national strategy was in effect delayed for more than a decade due in part to the nationwide obsession of rapid economic growth. The scientific development outlook represents a major paradigm shift for development. At the Sixth National Conference on Environmental Protection in April, 2006, Premier Wen Jiabao stated that ?gwe must be fully aware of the severity and complexity of our country's environmental situation and the importance and urgency of increasing environmental protection. Protecting the environment is to protect the homes we live in and the foundations for the development of the Chinese nation. We should not use up resources left by our forefathers without leaving any to our offspring. China should be on high alert to fight against worsening environmental pollution and ecological deterioration in some regions, and environmental protection should be given a higher priority in the drive for national modernization.?h He continued to call for three transformations in the nation?fs environmental protection, namely, to transform from an imbalanced treatment to a balanced treatment of economic development and environmental protection; from administrative measures to a comprehensive approach that also includes economic incentives and legal measures.

A recent move has elevated China?fs endeavor for an innovated approach to balancing environment and development. Ecological civilization was made a primary goal of the nation at the 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. This requires changing the industrial structure, the way of economic growth and consumption towards conservation of energy and natural resources and protection of the environment and ecosystems; promoting recycle-based production and renewable resources, reducing major pollutants and promoting the notion of ecological civilization among all citizens of the society.

The ideas are backed by specific programs. China?fs 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-10) set clear goals and numerical targets for environmental protection. These include promotion of energy efficiency, pollution control and resource conservation so as to be able to cut energy consumption per unit of GDP by 20% and major pollutants by 10% in five years and to increase forest coverage to 20% of the country from its 2005 level of 18.2%. By 2020, renewable energy will increase to 15% of total energy use from its current level of 7%. The government budget and overall investment on environmental protection are on a significant rise. For example, in the year 2006, China?fs investment in development of renewable energy accounted for nearly 10% of the world total, a large increase from 2005. These programs will bring significant environmental goods to China and the world. The energy efficiency program alone will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 1.5 billion tons in five years, five times of the Europe Union?fs total commitment under the Kyoto Protocol.

Just as China?fs economy has become an integral part of the globalized world, China?fs environment is an important part of the global environment. There will be no global sustainability without the sustainable development of China. It is essential for people and nations to work together for a better world.

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