Rio and China’s global future

Our abject failures since the last Rio summit are no surprise given the binds of global politics, writes Zheng Yisheng. For real change, we need a new, cooperative world, and China is key to building it. 

This article is adapted from the report China Going Green: A Civil Society Review Of 20 Years Of Sustainable Development, produced by six Chinese NGOs ahead of the Rio+20 summit. Read more here

We have a common predicament, and solving it requires humanity to work together. But state actors are, to a large degree, controlled by the confrontational logic of international politics. The dualities and contradictions common in sustainable development discourse, and the failings of the world’s joint efforts in the two decades since world leaders last talked environment in Rio, can be blamed on the nature of the times in which we live. The need to shift our development mode has long been clear, but clarity has not been enough to trigger change.

China is a good example of the problem. It is seen by some as the biggest obstacle to solving climate change, yet in the stricken world of global finance it is regarded as a saviour. This contradiction is possible because environment and economy have been treated separately.

That’s a wrongheaded approach. China is not yet fully industrialised, but already it is unable to enjoy the resources and environmental conditions that allowed developed nations to get rich.

In the near term, China can keep expanding using the world’s tried and tested economic model, but in the long term it must create a new one. The nation’s size means the model it has copied will more quickly reach its limits, and this is doubtless the biggest challenge facing China.

To emphasise the globally connected nature of sustainable development is not to shirk China’s responsibilities, but an attempt to better understand them. China should actively seek out new modes of social and economic growth, both to share the benefits of modernisation with more people and to promote global equality, balance and harmony. This will be a long and arduous process.

Assessing China’s record

How should we evaluate China’s efforts and achievements since the last Rio summit in 1992?

The country’s record in the last 20 years has been mixed. In 1994, two years after world leaders met in Brazil, China published its Agenda for the 21st Century, or “Agenda 21”. This bolstered national policy on environmental protection, and proposed strategies such as “transforming the mode of economic development”, “establishing an environmentally friendly, resource-conserving society”, “a circular economy”, “a low-carbon economy” and “an ecological civilisation”.  

Over the last two decades, green law in China has expanded faster than any other area of legislation. The government’s environmental protection body was promoted, first from a bureau to an agency, and then from an agency to a ministry. Clean energy technologies developed rapidly, and today the country leads the world in installed wind-power capacity.

Public environmental awareness has also made startling advances. Green civil society has emerged and evolved, moving from a focus on education to participation in governance, and becoming the country’s most active environmental force.

The Chinese government has been the decisive player in environmental governance. But the gap between government plans and environmental outcomes is significant, and points to the weak role of the law. Chinese legislation tends towards the management of business and fails to set standards and restrictions for government itself, or to ensure the rights of third-sector supervision.

Meanwhile, under the current fiscal and tax system, local governments are motivated above all by the pursuit of GDP growth. The result is a situation where, in many areas, the pace of destruction outstrips environmental oversight.

China’s environment has seen progress in some areas over the last two decades, but overall deterioration persists. Energy efficiency has markedly improved, but still lags far behind developed nations, while overall energy consumption continues to rise. Environmental pressures are only increasing, and bad news is more common than good.

Context cannot be ignored, of course. And, considering the natural resources China has, its history and its population, not to mention the fact it is a country in the fastest phase of industrialisation, the above achievements are hard-won and deserve respect.

And yet the contradictions remain. The environmental forces of the world all demand that China changes its mode of development, while the forces of economic globalisation push harder for the profit-orientated allocation of resources.

China’s role as the factory of the world is a product of the interaction of global markets. Can it make more independent choices on consumption styles and technology? To a large extent, no: these choices are restricted by international market forces. For example, during the financial crisis, a slump in China’s exports caused unemployment. And when new and sustainable modes of consumption are advocated, we find that China’s new generation of shoppers are swept up in the wave of consumerism promoted by big companies, both domestic and foreign.

Any single nation, particularly a developing nation, will struggle to achieve sustainable development alone. Only mutual understanding can bring about effective mutual cooperation.

A connected future for China

So how can China purse green development on a basis of global connectedness? It must pay attention to three key points.

First, although China has already started to explore the “green economy” – one of the themes at Rio – it needs to take on board more lessons from the experiences of other nations.

Conditions for innovation must be created for all firms, diversity of creativity respected and a wider range of people and organisations encouraged to participate in the construction of this green economy. Green shoots must be nurtured right across the corporate spectrum, in multinationals and start-ups, local firms and foreign enterprises. The use of government intervention instead of competitive market mechanisms, or the wholesale promotion of any one technology or social model, must be taboo. Methods for evaluating the green economy must be used appropriately: if they are to provide useful information, indicators of success should be tools, not targets in themselves.

Most importantly, the green economy cannot be solely about investment. Without a green society, the green economy will be useless. The management of China’s environment needs to shift from government control to a system of social checks and balances. That is, the status, roles, rights and responsibilities of the three pillars of environmental protection – government, business and civil society – must be clarified, and mechanisms for positive and effective interaction between those pillars guaranteed.

The aim of all this is for government success to be judged solely on how well it carries out its functions; for companies to be able to operate legally, enjoy fair competition and innovate in environmental technology and management; and for civil society to be able – in line with the law – to supervise and hold to account both government and business.

Second, China must be clear that the green economy is not a replacement for sustainable development. China should be among the first – if not the first – nation to find new ways of living and producing. From now on, we must advocate, investigate and support ideals of wealth without waste and happiness without extravagance. The road ahead will emerge as we move to meet the challenges.

Key to this will be providing and maintaining the space for innovation by, for example, treasuring and using China’s late-starter advantage, not just in technology, but also in decisions yet to be taken, such as planning new cities, creating new modes of public transport, protecting undeveloped natural areas and enhancing the green potential of diverse cultures. These are all arenas ripe for innovation.

In addition, innovation needs a vital and flexible social structure. Along with the government and market, civil society must not be ignored – it can act as a catalyst and incubator for innovation, and is essential in the formation of a vibrant and harmonious society.

Third, and extremely important, is to promote global green alliances and “deep equality”. To resolve our common crises, we must properly understand the impacts of our unequal system. All efforts, domestic or international, to reduce or shift global imbalances will help to solve our environmental crisis at root.

Shrinking the gap in material living standards between nations can only be good news. It is not hard to see that, while that gap remains so large, true cooperation will be difficult. Developed and developing nations alike need to redefine happiness: the former must abandon their unsustainable modes of consumption, while the latter should drop the pursuit of rich-nation living standards.

The principle of common but differentiated responsibilities – the idea that rich countries should bear a greater share of the burden than poor in tackling climate change – was determined 20 years ago in Rio. It must not be abandoned halfway. It is only the first step towards social evolution, social responsibility and deep equality. It sets poor and rich on the path to a new relationship, one which can help developing nations prosper and provide them with the means and freedom to develop.

It is essential that the green forces of all nations – especially civil society in developed and developing nations – boost mutual understanding and cooperation. Only a society that shares both its joys and troubles can face a common and uncertain future with optimism.

Zheng Yisheng is deputy director of both the Institute of Quantitative and Technical Economics and the Centre for Environmental and Development Research at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

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