China: The most important story in the world

China's development presents an extraordinary environmental challenge for the world. But there is still a case for optimism, argues Jonathon Porritt on the eve of his three-day visit to China.

In June 2006, the Chinese Construction Minister decreed that all Chinese cities had to re-instate the bike lanes that had been removed over the last few years to make way for the car. All civil servants were told that they must either cycle, or take public transport to get to work.  The Minister was, it seems, determined that China should regain its global fame as "the Kingdom of Bicycles".

He will have quite a struggle on his hands with some of China's increasingly powerful city mayors, for whom the car has become a far more fitting symbol of economic and political success than the lowly bike. Every day in Beijing, for instance, more than 1,000 new cars are rolled out on its already highly congested streets.

That is just one of a seemingly limitless flow of eye-watering statistics about China today. The sheer size of the country continues to astound the rest of the world. And if your passion in life is sustainable economic development, rather than simply the environment, then what's going on in China is quite simply the most important unfolding story anywhere in the world.

If 10% of the 60 million people who live in the UK choose to reduce their energy consumption by 1%, it hardly registers as a blip on the world scale. But when 10% of the 1.3 billion people who live in China take advantage of its surging prosperity to increase their own energy consumption by 1% per annum, then the world had better take notice. Such decisions affect those of us who live in Britain and elsewhere as much as our fellow world citizens in China. In an interconnected and interdependent world, China's emissions are everybody's emissions.

Chinese politicians talk with justifiable pride of their enormous achievement in enabling more than 250 million people to escape grinding rural poverty, and to find jobs in the country's burgeoning economy. Living standards have soared; and average life expectancy increased from just 35 years when the communists came to power in 1949, to 72 years in 2004.

These social gains have been driven primarily by the economic boom – with average growth of around 10% over the last 15 years. But that has caused environmental damage on such a scale that the entire growth model for China is now imperilled. According to a report in Nature in 2005: "The losses from pollution and ecological damage [in China] range from 7% to 20% of GDP every year in the past two decades". The impact on human health has been particularly severe. About 300,000 deaths a year are attributed to air quality problems. Sixteen of the world's 20 most polluted cities are in China, and levels of cancer in such areas are amongst the worst in the world.


Things are going to get a great deal worse before they get much better. China is building a new coal-fired power station every 10 days. In 2005 alone, it added about 65,000 megawatts of new power generation – roughly equivalent to the entire power capacity of the UK today. It is already the world's secondlargest emitter of greenhouse gases, and is one of the most inefficient energy users in the world – emissions per unit of GDP are ten times that of the average for developed countries.

There is no point trying to downplay this: there is an ecological apocalypse unfolding in China right now.

But few are more aware of this than the rulers of China themselves. Just a few months ago, the 11th Five Year Plan was unveiled by Premier Wen Jiabao with an exceptionally tough message that China could not follow the old path (which, he might have added, is the path set out by the West!) of "grow first, clean up the environmental mess later". It had to learn to grow sustainably – even if that meant growing more slowly.

The government's impressive targets for the next five years include a significant cut in total greenhouse gas emissions, a 10% cut in total pollution output (notably sulphur dioxide emissions and chemical oxygen demand), a 20% fall in energy consumption per unit of GDP, and a 30% reduction in water use (per unit of industrial value added). It's also developing a green accounting system that will include full environmental costs in its calculation of GDP – something that I would dearly love to see working here in the UK!

It is an extraordinary challenge. But China is capable of moving with great speed when it puts its mind to it: it phased out the use of leaded petrol in less than two years (compared to the decade or more it took us here in the UK), and has recently mandated emissions standards for all new cars that are at least the equivalent of European standards.

All of which guarantees an ongoing battle royal between those who see the glass as half empty, and those who see it as half full. The 'half-empties' look at the existing environmental legacy, factor that into the huge political and social pressures to keep the Chinese economy booming at almost any cost, and remain sunk in impenetrable gloom.

The half-fulls see no reason why China shouldn't become the world's number one nation in terms of eco-efficiency and the kind of "green industrial revolution" that Western leaders love to pontificate about. But they acknowledge that achieving this will take a lot more than some ministerial decree restoring the bike to its rightful place in the hierarchy of sustainable transport systems – however welcome that may be!


The author: Jonathon Porritt is founder director of Forum for the Future and chair of the UK Sustainable Development Commission, an independent watchdog to advise how environmentally friendly development should be put at the heart of government policy. From 19-21 September, Porritt is visiting China to describe his experience in Britain and learn from "our fellow world citizens" in China. Porritt will be talking on China's global role in Sustainable Development at DFID China's office, in Beijing at 4pm on Wednesday 20th September. Anyone interested in attending should contact: Deng Yongzheng, Programme Officer, UK-China Sustainable Development Dialogue, DFID China, tel: 86 (0)10 8529 6882 ext 2048, email:  YZ-Deng [at]


This article appears in “Greening the Dragon: China’s Sustainability Challenge”, a special supplement produced by Green Futures magazine, published in September 2006.

Homepage photo by Jayanth Chennamangalam