China fundamental to success of new sustainable development goals

World must engage with China to limit impacts of overseas investments, say experts

Emerging economies will play a key role in the world meeting the new sustainable development goals (SDG), and as an economic powerhouse and the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, China is especially important, experts told Diálogo Chino.

After three and a half years of intensive discussions between member states, the UN general assembly today adopted a new sustainable development agenda at the organization’s headquarters in New York. The new agenda, which will replace the millennium development goals (MDG) set out in 2000, consists of 17 goals and 169 targets that will guide the organization’s actions until 2030.

The special adviser to the UN Secretary-General on post-2015 development planning, Amina Mohammed, says that the world needs more than a narrow focus on social inequality and poverty reduction.

“Emerging countries have an important role to play so that the SDGs can be achieved. There has already been a big change in China compared to five years ago. It is likely that next year it will already include the 17 goals in its national plan,” said Mohammed.

For André Corrêa d’Almeida, director of the China Sustainability Project at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, the important thing is China increasing dialogue with the international community. The country has already demonstrated that it “actively” participated in developing the SDGs, Corrêa d’Almeida says.

Even so, China should reach peak CO2 emissions in 2025, five years before the end of the SDGs scheduled timeframe.

“It would be more worrisome if China were not part of this dialogue. Nobody expects Chinese leaders to compromise their economic development goals because of environmental issues. It’s not that they don’t value the environment, but the economy will continue to be the priority,” Corrêa d’Almeida warned.

This is a concern for UN authorities, especially when it comes to Chinese capital investments in infrastructure projects overseas. The issue, they say, is whether China is exporting its environmental problems through its overseas investments. And some believe that, for this reason, SDGs will have to form part of foreign policy too.

Mohammed admitted that she is still “very concerned” with the nature of Chinese investments around the world, especially in Latin America.

“We know that these investments have to do with business, economic interests and profits, but human rights and environmental indicators should go hand in hand with the profit companies want to make. We’re engaging the Chinese and fighting against this,” said Ban Ki-moon’s special advisor.

Mohammed will raise the subject during her next trip to China, which is scheduled for October 18.

Mohammed’s message is in line with that of Alicia Bárcena, executive secretary of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).

“I am very concerned about sustainability. If China wants to invest in Latin America, it must observe certain criteria,” she commented.

In her opinion, Chinese investments should adopt both social and environmental sustainability criteria including labour rights and non-polluting environmental technologies.

“I see that today Latin American countries are competing with each other to offer better benefits, greater exemptions with fewer restrictions in order to attract investments. This is a major mistake. We all need to have the same criteria to prevent unfair competition. We are working hard on this front for a more homogeneous approach,” said Bárcena.

For years the relationship between China and Latin America has been based on trade in goods and services, and China has since become the continent’s number one trading partner.

The major shift indicated by the Chinese is that it does not just want an export market, but intends to continue to invest heavily in the region. “The Chinese want to take on the risk of investing in Latin America,” commented Bárcena.

Chinese premier Li Keqiang’s South American tour in May helped usher in a new phase in China-Latin America relations. Li Keqiang signed 35 investment and cooperation agreements just with Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff during the trip. The deals were worth a reported US$ 53billion.

“China is looking for markets, but also for natural resources and food. Its areas of investment have been concentrated in the extractive industry, and construction in general, from connectivity in the region to energy,” said Bárcena.

However, many of these projects have a reputation for environmental degradation. The countries in the region are already suffering the consequences of not having set out the rules for environmental compensation before making the investments.

ECLAC is in the process of mapping some 230 social and environmental conflicts with indigenous peoples and local communities affected by mining in Latin America as it attempts to improve resource governance.

Bárcena argues that in order to prevent major environmental and social impacts, countries in the region should meet to plan preventative actions, even before large investments are made.

The executive secretary announced that ECLAC is starting to prepare country-specific criteria for foreign investors to better understand local environments.

“In Peru we are working on action that companies must undertake before investing in projects, especially mining. There is still a long way to go, but the countries of Latin America must act together on this,” said Bárcena.