Building a Beautiful China: A Definitive Exploration on Sustainable Economy




FINALLY, the world is witnessing what may well turn out to be the definitive how-to guide on building a sustainable economy that works in complete harmony with the environment: China’s transformation under the banner of an “ecological civilization.” 


It’s been a long time coming. For well over a century, in fact ever since the dawn of the industrial revolution, the environment has consistently played second tier to development. Initially, very few economies even cared about the state of the environment. Later on, a good environment was seen as a luxury, but ultimately an impediment to development.


A bird’s eye-view of the Shanwangping Karst National Park in Chongqing Municipality. The Chinese government facilitates the construction of the national park system to better preserve natural resources and biodiversity.


Simply put, policymakers have been facing an either-or proposition to a seemingly impossible equation: How to lift tens of millions of people out of poverty and at the same time preserve their natural environment. Many countries have managed to up-end this apparent trade-off in recent years, but for the larger economies, in most cases wealth has been built on unsustainable growth.


 That is about to change, and I’m convinced China will now lead the way.


Steering to the Course of Sustainability


Since the turn of the 21st century, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the State Council have been vigorously advancing sustainable development from both theoretical and practical perspectives, with remarkable achievements. 


In 2007, the 17th CPC National Congress committed China to undertake comprehensive, harmonious, and ecologically civilized development. Five years later, at the 18th National Congress, the concept of ecological civilization was elevated as the national strategy. This was a new concept in the development of human civilization. It refers to material, spiritual, and organizational achievements in following objective laws of harmonious human, social, and natural development. Its essential requirement is that nature must be respected, accommodated, and protected. Green hills and clear water should be recognized as priceless treasures. It held that the outdated view that man can conquer nature and ignore the limits of resources and the environment should be completely abandoned.


The Congress clearly stated that China must incorporate the idea of ecological civilization into all aspects of economic, political, cultural, and social progress. Actions and activities relating to China’s geographical space, industrial structures, modes of production, and people’s living should all be conducive to conserving resources and protecting the environment so as to create a sound working and living environment for Chinese people and make contributions to global ecological safety.


An even greater commitment came in 2013, when the Chinese government resolutely declared “war” on pollution, just as it had for poverty eradication. It outlined the principles of prevention first, supervision at the source, control throughout the process, and severe punishment for violations. It devoted itself to controlling air, water and soil pollution.


Since then, China has held true to its commitment. Together with the U.S. administration of former President Obama, it was instrumental in the successful global uptake of the Paris Agreement to combat climate change. Even when President Trump decided to change course, China did not, but rather took on even greater global leadership.


The 19th CPC National Congress raised the bar even higher, placing the environment more prominently than ever before in the nation’s plan for the future. A simple word search from President Xi’s report given at the opening session was revealing, and according to observers, the result was emblematic of China’s plan to shift from the smokestack industries that delivered it double-digit growth. In his speech, President Xi used the word “environment” and other related terms 89 times, compared to 74 mentions in 2012. Reference to the “economy”, meanwhile, dropped to 70 from a hefty 104 five years ago.


President Xi also spoke of the “principal contradiction facing Chinese society,” calling on the Party to address imbalances in education, income, healthcare, housing, and the environment. The message was clear: Hundreds of millions have been lifted out of poverty, and now it’s time to ensure that development is shared and sustainable.


Concrete Policy Framework


China is now pursuing green development. This will include stepping up efforts to establish a legal and policy framework to promote green production and consumption, and promote a sound economic structure that facilitates green, low-carbon, and circular development. In concrete terms, that will mean firms at the cutting edge of technologies such as renewable energy will flourish, as will those who close wasteful production loops. It also includes the creation of a market-based system for green technology innovation and the availability of more green finance. There will also be the promotion of a revolution in energy production and consumption, building an energy sector that is clean, low-carbon, safe, and efficient.


China also wants to get everyone involved in improving the environment and addressing environmental issues at the root, including building on the campaign to prevent and control air pollution to make the skies blue again. It will carry out major projects to protect and restore key ecosystems, improving the system of shields for ecological security, and develop ecological corridors and biodiversity protection networks matched with better planning in urban development.


Most important of all is the message that China’s move to enhance environmental protection and get tough on pollution and other illegal activities will not slow economic growth. This is already based on substantial research on provinces that have launched tough environmental protection programs, and which showed that special measures to enforce environmental law have no negative impacts on growth.


Ultimately, it is actions and not words that are the most important. And in terms of action, we are seeing plenty. In an ambitious national park scheme, China is on track to keep a total area of 215,000 square kilometers of land under protection, returning two percent of the nation’s land and space to species like the Giant Panda, Siberian Tiger, and Tibetan Antelope. Action on polluters has been stepped up, while meeting emissions targets has become a key performance indicator for local officials. Coal plants and heavy industries are being closed down. China’s ban on the ivory trade will help save elephants in Africa. It is also a global leader on turning the tide on desertification, as I have seen with my own eyes in places like the Kubuqi Desert.


Moving forward, it will be exciting to see how ecological civilization will be put in action not just in China, but in China’s work abroad – notably the Belt and Road Initiative. China’s global leadership is crucial, and I hope its partnership with UN Environment continues to deepen. That, for me, is also a beautiful China – not only how China protects its own environment, but also how it can take this cause in its dealings with the rest of the world as a powerful driver of positive global change.


ERIK SOLHEIM is executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).