China does not have the time to learn by trial and error. It needs to identify and act on core responsibilities related to environment and development where results will be highly significant to China and to the world. A good example has been China’s role in the Montreal Protocol restriction of CFCs.
Between now and 2010–2012, China will face some major issues in terms of its potential global environment and resource impacts—where it will be expected to be a high performer. Among these issues are:
- China’s rapidly rising greenhouse gas emissions;
- prevention and control of human diseases originating in China (SARS, avian flu and others);
- corporate responsibility for Chinese business and state activities abroad, especially related to environment and social aspects of market supply chains;
- influence of China on global patrimony/ heritage, including sites and structures, natural habitats and species of global interest located within China, and areas that China might be affecting through activities abroad; and
- influence of China in shaping, adequately supporting and implementing international environmental agreements.
China can take various steps towards strengthening its role as a responsible producing and consuming nation dedicated to resource and environmental stewardship. These steps could include:
- working towards prevention and elimination of major problems rather than seeking palliative measures;
- promoting upward movement of standards and performance;
- consistently making effective and innovative international interventions, including supportive and leading action;
- implementing domestic policies, regulations and enforcement activities harmonized with international environmental and other agreements; and
- working cooperatively to remove illegal, cross-boundary activities.
There are many opportunities for China to learn from the rest of the world’s 30 to 40 years of environment and development experience. There are caveats to this experience. None parallels the rapid rate of economic development experienced by China, nor the size of population, and therefore meeting both demands and very complex governance considerations. Nevertheless there are important lessons, good and bad. China’s neighbour, Japan, is an important source, albeit not the only relevant example. In fact, China has done quite a good job at learning from others so far, and in drawing on international efforts such as Agenda 21.
China also must be prepared to address emerging environmental concerns such as those shown in Box 8. This list is drawn up based on international experience including concerns not fully described in the text. It will make sense to cover these issues in an internationally cooperative way in the coming years inside and outside of China.
Over the past decades, China has maintained a relatively low international profile, not overtly taking on leadership positions internationally. This is consistent with Deng Xiaoping’s admonition that China should “hide its ambitions and disguise its claws.” It has been the Chinese way in relation to international environment relations as well as in many of its economic development ways. Yet the results of the economy are such that this approach is becoming increasingly untenable. It can now be argued that the same is true for environment and development.
The emphasis from China in the future will likely be that it wishes to be seen as a responsible, wealth-creating country, willing to shoulder its share of international burdens, but wanting for the world to recognize that it is also still a developing nation. This duality needs to be respected, certainly in relation to environment and development.
China’s environment and development relationships within its region, with poorer countries in other regions such as Africa and with richer OECD nations will each take on their own complexion. At a global level, it is proper to expect that China will move towards considerably more action to reduce carbon emissions, control pollution and intensify efforts to be a good steward of resources at home and abroad. It should be in China’s best interests to insist that other nations do their share as well.
It was popular in the 1970s to describe all countries as passengers in a single lifeboat called Planet Earth. There is no escaping the impacts of any one passenger on the others. It will be one of this century’s greatest challenges to keep a steady trim on our lifeboat. China, by its size and increasing global role, can play a huge role in safeguarding the journey for all nations and for all people.
One Lifeboat: China and the World's Environment and Development
The climate is changing; biodiversity is being reduced; quality of land, water and air is compromised. Indeed, our global environment is a stormy sea of effects known, unknown, unpredictable and perhaps unimaginable—a stormy sea we navigate together in one lifeboat. And like a real lifeboat, when one passenger moves, everyone feels the effects.
With a massive population, substantial resource base and unprecedented economic growth, China occupies a prominent position in the lifeboat. The country’s environment and development impacts can be felt around the world. By 2020, China expects to quadruple its GDP over the year 2000, while becoming an “environmentally friendly, resource-efficient society.” These goals present an enormous challenge, with outcomes of growing significance for all nations.
China’s role as the “world’s workshop” complicates relationships of its ecological footprint and market supply chains. There are pressures that are moving the Chinese people away from their traditionally low consumption patterns. But China’s new wealth presents major opportunities for rapid improvement not only within China, but for tackling global environment and development issues.
China has demonstrated its commitment to environmental stewardship by participating in major international agreements and by investing in improved environmental performance domestically. It’s projected that between 2006 and 2010 alone, China will spend US$243 billion on environmental protection and management. Yet economic growth outpaces environmental efforts, and a weak international environmental governance system hinders progress.
This report looks at the international environmental implications of China’s growth, and the role played by China in international environmental cooperation, including its regional and global efforts and its growing role in development assistance.
As with a real lifeboat, we learn that there is little room or time for trial and error. There is only room and time for cooperation and effective action. Only then might the lifeboat sail smoothly. China, with the help of its fellow nations and trading partners, must improve its environmental performance and find ways to maximize the return on its investment in environmental protection. And the country must use its substantial sway to encourage its regional and global partners to improve their own performance.
- ^This point of not taking an overt leadership role is repeatedly stressed during meetings with Chinese officials, but it does not
mean inaction. The International Herald Tribune notes that this approach may be emphasized less in the future (China Opens
Debate on its Rising Status, IHT, 9–10 December 2006).
This is a chapter from One Lifeboat: China and the World's Environment and Development (e-book).
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