Global-level interdependency among nations has steadily increased, especially in the past 25 years. It is unlikely that this tendency will diminish. We all share one planet, and by the calculations of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and others, we are well past a level of sustainable environment and resource use, which is causing severe environmental impacts—some irreversible. Today’s emerging economic powerhouses among nations, and burgeoning populations in poorer nations, lay just claim to a greater share of nature’s wealth and the fruits of human knowledge. But this is likely to be a sustainable claim only if there are major adjustments in the well-entrenched economic ways of richer nations, and a better track record of environment and development performance on the part of all nations. China is rewriting the book on environment and development, affecting perspectives held by the entire world. No other nation has risen so fast in terms of global economic sway, and none among large developing nations has ever had to cope with poverty reduction, job creation, and building of urban and rural infrastructure on the scale of, over such a short time, as China.
China influences the world’s economy and ecology. In turn, China’s domestic environmental situation is, of course, affected by changes taking place elsewhere. There can be little doubt that China is responsibly engaged in seeking a better relationship between environment and development within the country, regionally and globally. Since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, there has been an increasing national effort and, especially since the turn of the century, a considerably greater commitment of funding for environmental protection and management. In fact, such expenditures are projected to total US$243 billion between 2006 and 2010. But the actual results to date have fallen short in terms of environmental performance. Important environmental goals have not been met within China, a matter that occupies the most senior levels of government, but is often of less concern at local levels where GDP growth is a pre-occupation. For example, the targets for reduction of key pollutants such as sulphur dioxide were not met during the 10th Five-Year Plan (2001–2005), while economic goals were well surpassed. This trend continued into 2006 as stringent targets for energy efficiency and pollution reduction were not met.
Until recently, there was limited interest in the international implications of China’s environment and resource use. In the early 1990s, when double digit Chinese economic growth rates were common, the international implications were limited because development was starting at such a modest level, domestic consumption was very low and exports were still limited. Perhaps few people ever believed that China could maintain very high growth rates over decades, or that a country that traditionally had quite low (albeit very inefficient) energy use could quickly start influencing the world price of natural resources including oil, cement, forest products, minerals and agricultural commodities. This influence accelerated dramatically once China became a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO), with a rapid increase in exports, but also with more affordable automobiles for Chinese citizens, leading to higher demands for oil.
Today, China is on everyone’s radar screen for a variety of reasons: balance of payments issues with the U.S. and some others; market opportunities for export-oriented countries; high stock values of international resource companies; fear of lost jobs as industrial production, and now some service sector jobs, move to China; fear of hard-won environmental and social performance of the last 30 years being threatened; and worry that pollution and other environmental impacts from China’s rise will directly affect human health and ecosystems elsewhere. As noted in a recent Canadian newspaper commentary, in addition to outsourcing manufacturing to China, the developed world is “outdumping our pollution there as well.”
These perspectives, of course, represent only one side of the picture. China also has specific concerns about its international environment and development relationship. It will face the full impact of climate change despite many decades of contributing only minimally to the problem. Like other countries, China pays the high price of resource commodities purchased on the international market. Undesirable byproducts from export-driven industry remain in China, including pollutants and their health costs. Some of the industry launched in recent decades is based on obsolete production techniques with limited environmental protection potential. Countries have readily given over to China some of the worst polluting industries—coke production, for example (China supplied 56 per cent of the world’s coke in 2004). And China is concerned over the potential of non-tariff trade barriers that may be imposed in the name of environmental protection.
At a global level, environmental governance is weak. While environmental progress has occurred as a consequence of the many global environment and development initiatives, this progress pales in comparison with the growing levels of damage to human and ecosystem health and to the global commons, including oceans and the atmosphere. China is vulnerable to this weakly developed environmental governance system, with repercussions domestically and for its international cooperation efforts. This report examines environment and development implications of China’s rapid growth on the rest of the world. Environmental effects of the rest of the world on China also are examined. China serves as a workshop for the world, and other activities that are directly the result of economic activities initiated elsewhere. The subject matter is broad and bears the brunt of environmental impacts associated with tourism, climate change complex.
China’s economic growth and global environmental influence will likely continue to grow towards 2020, a date by which China hopes to have quadrupled GDP relative to 2000 and to have achieved an “environmentally friendly, resource-efficient society,” a phrase now repeated in major speeches by senior leaders as an expression of their vision. With this growing prosperity will come additional levels of responsibility for China. Such responsibilities could open new economic and environmental opportunities and strengthen international perceptions about China’s role in the world.
Chinese leaders have made numerous statements implying that China as a responsible country must do well in addressing all three aspects of sustainable development: the economic social and environmental components. A recent White Paper on Environmental Protection in China (1996–2005), produced by the State Council, documents many of the major steps taken and also future needs. Concerning international cooperation, the White Paper notes the many steps taken for bilateral and multilateral cooperation regionally and globally to improve environment. For example, the paper notes that, under the Montreal Protocol, China has adopted more than 100 policies and measures to reduce ozone-depleting substances (ODS), accounting for half the total amount of ODS eliminated by developing nations The White Paper affirms that China will meet signed and ratified international obligations. And in December 2005, the State Council set out the basic guidelines for domestic implementation of environmental protection. This has been followed by the 11th Five-Year Plan (2006–2010), the nation’s first to focus on a comprehensive range of sustainable development priorities.
Particularly striking is Premier Wen Jiabao’s statement at the 6th National Environmental Protection Congress held in Beijing in April 2006. Premier Wen noted that: “We must fully understand the [environmental] situation is grim and complicated…” He proposed “Three Transformations”: (1) environment and economic growth should be given equal status; (2) environmental problems should be considered concurrently, not after economic growth is achieved; and (3) instead of the current focus on administrative initiatives, environmental action should be broadened to include legal, economic, institutional and other measures. This robust complement of concepts is only slowly making its way into the minds and actions of decision-makers, but provides an important touchstone for the future.
This overview paper is based on a submission prepared as part of a year-long examination of China’s progress and prospects on environment and development for the period 1990 to 2020. This examination was carried out by the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development (CCICED). The paper contains the views of several international contributors associated with the Council’s past or present work, plus extensive review of Chinese and international perspectives on China’s current and future environment and development situations, and views based on interviews and a literature review.
The analysis acknowledges that China: (1) is a developing nation with hundreds of millions of relatively poor people, and a growing gap between richer people in cities, and the poorly educated rural majority; (2) is a “saving” nation which still has a very low per capita consumption level; (3) has limited per capita resources, with some, especially water, well below world averages; (4) has many unique habitats and a high level of biodiversity of global as well as of national concern; (5) faces some impacts such as those associated with climate change which are not primarily of China’s own making; and (6) absorbs major environmental costs resulting from the pass-through of materials and energy used for traded goods. These factors call for a great deal of understanding on the part of the international community with respect to judgments on China’s environment and recognition that economic growth is fundamental to China’s future. Many development experts within China believe that economic growth levels below eight per cent per year are likely to lead to unacceptable levels of prosperity and to social unrest.
The analysis starts with a look at resource and environmental matters related to China’s recent growth. We consider five key factors influencing China’s contribution to global prosperity and the growing dependence of other nations on China’s stability and economic growth:
- China’s comparative situation with other nations;
- Ecological footprints;
- Chinese trade, investments and expenditures abroad;
- International cooperation roles; and
- Emerging environment and security matters.
These factors place China’s environment and development specifics in a broader geopolitical context that cannot be ignored. This material is followed by five case studies that examine how China is dealing with problems where effects are global or regional as well as domestic, including actions that could be enhanced in the future:
- International market supply chains;
- Trade in illegally produced, harvested or transported materials;
- Biosecurity and biodiversity protection;
- Regional environmental quality and cooperation— river and marine water issues; and
- International environment and development cooperation, including development cooperation between China and Africa.
These cases draw on the insights of several former CCICED task force international co-chairs and others. Not all the bases have been covered. In particular, more attention might have been given to the following topics:
- China’s implementation strategies for several multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs), especially on climate change.
- Selected sub-global and regional environmental problems such as long-range transport of air pollutants (LRTAPs), a matter of growing concern, especially on the part of the U.S. and Japan.
- Accelerated processes for sustainable development such as technology transfer and partnerships for addressing energy efficiency and environmental protection. This is a broad field in which China has built an astonishing number of productive working relationships, including business, government-to-government, research and development, and municipal and academic linkages.
Each of these three topics deserves in-depth analysis which was not possible to include here. Based on the analytical information, 10 important issues have been identified, with conclusions drawn about each.
- ^WWF International, Living Planet Report (Gland: 2006)
- ^Kristen Day (ed.), China’s Environment and the Challenge of Sustainable Development (M.E. Sharpe, 2005), 320 pp. ISBN: 0765614715; G.Murray and I.G. Cook, The Greening of China (Beijing: China Intercontinental Press, 2004), 193 pp.
- ^Elizabeth Economy, The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005), 368 pp. ISBN: 0801489784
- ^Jianguo Liu and Jared Diamond, China’s Environment in a Globalizing World: How China and the Rest of the World Affect Each Other, Nature, 30 June 2005; Feeding a Dragon, Latin Finance, September 2006; OECD, Environment and Governance in China, Ch. 17 in Governance in China (Paris: OECD, 2005), 236 pp.
- ^David Reevely, Can’t You Hear the Dolphins Weeping?, Ottawa Citizen, 18 December 2006.
- ^White Paper on Environmental Protection Published
- ^See also Jimin Zhao and Leonard Ortolano, The Chinese Government’s Role in Implementing Multilateral Environmental Agreements: The Case of the Montreal Protocol, The China Quarterly, 175, 2003, 708–725.
- ^Decision of the State Council on Implementing the Concept on Scientific Development and Enhancing Environmental Protection, 3 December 2005.
- ^CCICED Task Force on Review and Prospects, General Report, presented to CCICED 5th Annual General Meeting of the Third hase (Beijing: November 2006).
- ^An example of such in-depth analysis is a recent report prepared by UNDP in China reviewing efforts on capacity building for mplementation of multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs).
This is a chapter from One Lifeboat: China and the World's Environment and Development (e-book).
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