China’s Ecological Progress and Global Sustainable Development




COUNTRIES across the globe face the common challenge of sustainable development. It was in 2007 that China first proposed the idea of promoting ecological progress, thereby embedding the concept of sustainable development in the context of human civilization. Ten years on, especially since the convening of the 18th CPC National Congress, China has made considerable headway in its actions as well as advocacy of ecological progress. The country has improved ecological environment management and governance, and also freely shared its experience with other nations.


Bold Progress and Achievements


Since the 18th National Congress of the CPC, great importance has been attached to incorporating China’s ecological progress into every facet of social, political, economic, and cultural development. In this regard, the Chinese government has brought into effect several major policies that have produced significant results. 


A morning runner in the Central Park of Jiaxing City, Zhejiang Province.


The theories applicable to ecological progress, newly refined and expressed in plain language, have raised public ecological awareness. It is pointed out, for example, that a healthy ecology nurtures a prosperous civilization, that green mountains are indeed gold mountains, and that the ecological environment is a productive force. During the 18th CPC National Congress, ecology was listed as one of the five indicators to the goal of building a moderately prosperous society in all respects, the other four being the country’s politics, economy, culture, and social development. At the Third Plenary Session of the 18th CPC Central Committee, the Party called for the building of a systematic, complete system of ecological progress; and at the Fourth Plenary Session it proposed setting up a legal system specifically to protect the ecological environment. At the Fifth Plenary Session, “green” was designated a key concept for development, equal in importance to innovation, coordination, opening-up, and shared benefits. A complete theoretical system has so far formed with the institution establishment at the core. The system aims to build harmonious relations between humans and nature by strengthening environmental management and promoting ecological culture and green life.



Both the institution and system geared to promoting ecological progress have been basically established. In the Third Plenary Session of the 18th CPC Central Committee, it was explicitly proposed to protect the ecological environment with institutions and deepen systematic reforms towards ecological progress. Soon after, the central government carried out a policy mix (styled “1+6”) encompassing an overarching plan for further reforms and six pilots in this regard, in such fields as supervision, accountability, and a natural resources balance sheet. These systems have been either established or improved in eight respects. They include: natural resource property rights; national land space exploitation and protection; space planning; overall management and frugal use of resources; paid use of resources and ecological compensation; environmental governance and an ecological protection market; ecological progress evaluation and assessment; and accountability and legal liability. The eight systems constitute China’s fundamental ecological progress institution. Meanwhile, China has formulated or amended laws on environmental protection, atmospheric pollution prevention, water pollution prevention, and soil pollution prevention, all of which signify remarkable progress in the country’s legal construction in environmental issues.


There have been further improvements to the ecological environment. On the one hand, China has carried out action plans aimed at controlling and preventing air, water and soil pollution. The country is drawing up an ecological “red line” that will declare certain regions under mandatory and rigorous protection, and protect and restore the natural ecology of mountains, waters, forests, farmland, and lakes. The rural environment has considerably improved since the advancement of comprehensive management of the countryside.


Wind turbines in Saihanba Forest Farm, Hebei Province, which is the world’s largest planted forest.


Legal enforcement has also been tightened. The judicial interpretation of the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate supplemented the criteria for violating environmental law and lowered the benchmarks for convictions, and the Supreme People’s Court has set up an adjudication division specifically for environmental resources. The environmental supervision conducted by the central government across the country has been instrumental in solving certain perennial problems. In 2016, the first phase of the new ambient air quality standards went into operation in 74 cities, where the average ratio of days with good environment stands at 74.2 percent, 13.7 percent higher than in 2013. Meanwhile water quality monitoring showed an overall improvement, with a 17.9 percent increase of Grade III or better surface water compared with 2010. The water quality of the main streams of major rivers and lakes has also greatly improved. 


The concept of green development has produced good results. The Third Plenary Session of the 18th CPC Central Committee called for a change in GDP-based cadre assessment, and accordingly drafted a new standard which involves an index on the circular economy and green development of industries. This action prompted supply-side structural reform and adoption of green financial policies, which optimized industrial structure and consistently cut resource and energy consumption. In 2016, China slashed 65 million tons of production capacity for iron and steel, and 290 million metric tons of coal. The energy consumption per unit of GDP also fell 17.9 percent compared to the 2012 level. As the country’s use of non-fossil energy spikes, the proportion of coal consumption steadily falls. China now leads the world in its installed capacity for generating hydropower, wind electricity, and solar power. It is also the biggest consumer of new energy. Meanwhile, energy conservation and environmental protection have become strategic industries that are undergoing accelerated development.  



The capacity for environmental public service provision has been promoted. As of the end of 2015, the country’s maturing environmental infrastructure had enabled it to process 182 million tons of sewage daily in urban areas, making it the world No. 1 in this respect. An impressive 92 percent of urban sewage was processed, and 94.1 percent of domestic garbage in urban built-up areas was under detoxification processing. In rural areas, about 72,000 villages have carried out comprehensive environmental management, and about 61,000 intensive livestock farms have installed waste treatment, disposal, and resource utilization equipment. More than 2,700 monitoring stations have been set up nationwide. Their personnel, totaling 60,000 workers, closely monitor the local ecology. As of 2016, natural conservation zones accounted for 14.83 percent of China’s total land area, and the ratio of green space in the urban built-up areas hit 36.4 percent.


A face-lift project is completed in August to improve the virescence of a high-speed railway station in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province.


There is now higher public ecological awareness. China constantly disseminates knowledge and information about environmental protection, including environmental quality, pollutant discharges, and environmental assessment projects. The channels and scope of public participation have also expanded. As of the end of 2015, results of a survey show that online green consumers amounted to 65 million, almost 14 times the figure four years earlier. In 2016, about 96.3 percent of survey respondents said they were aware of the ecological progress concept, 90 percent were in favor of building an ecological society, while more than 80 percent believed that this was an issue of concern to everyone. Related data also show that the public now seeks out, rather than passively receiving ecological information, and is generally willing to participate in building a society with an ecological environment.


From a holistic perspective, these achievements are evident in all aspects of society. They constitute a complete system, encompassing the theory and practice of Chinese ecological progress.


Significance to Global Sustainability


Promoting ecological progress is China’s inevitable choice in light of its particular situation, and also reflects the country’s shared sense of responsibility for global sustainable development. With its vast area and immense population, China plays a significant part in the battle against resource overexploitation and environmental pollution. An extended period of Western media rhetoric on China featured such comments as “who can feed China?” and “China is an environmental threat,” which blatantly ignored China’s huge environmental efforts and achievements. For example, the country supports one fifth of the world’s population while possessing just seven percent of the world’s arable land. It also outperforms the developed countries as regards cumulative historical and per capita emissions, and falling levels of pollution. Aware of the imperative to maintain ecological environment, China has driven this endeavor through firm resolve and perseverance and the will to contribute to ameliorating the global environmental issue.



A salient example is China’s attitude and efforts towards achieving the Paris Agreement. To tackle global climate change, the Chinese government made sustained, strenuous efforts, from negotiations through to approval, to the agreement’s eventual ratification. China took the initiative by virtue of its commitment to cut its carbon emissions by 40 to 45 percent by the year 2020. The amount of ozone layer-depleting-substances China thus weeded out accounts for more than half of the total generated by all developing countries, and contributes substantially to protection of the ozone layer.


Ecological progress enforcement has proven a deeper and more innovative sustainability concept. Since the UN issued its report, “Our Common Future, From One Earth to One World” in 1987, the world has reached a consensus on taking the sustainable path. For over three decades, nations have made remarkable efforts to promote sustainable development and global environmental governance. However, the challenge in such fields as climate change, biodiversity and pollution remains severe.


In exploring sustainability, different countries have formulated various models which give preference to different factors, such as technological innovation, the market, or legal and administrative tools. The formulation of models is generally influenced by a nation’s system of governance, stage of development, and market environment. China’s ecological progress, in line with its political, economic, social, cultural, and ecological conditions, emphasizes the comprehensive application of various tools, imbuing every aspect of production and life with the concept of green development. This paradigm hoists sustainability to the level of human civilization, with the aim of achieving harmony between humankind and nature and realizing social prosperity over eons to come. It signifies China’s vision and solution to addressing the sustainable development challenge.


Building a Community of Shared Future


Forging a civilization that embodies ecological sustainability is the joint responsibility of all human beings. Since the Industrial Revolution, excessive exploitation of natural resources has sapped the ecology, and prejudiced the survival and development of humankind. There is only one earth on which humans subsist. Nations of the planet live in the same ecological system, and face a common destiny. Protecting the world and realizing sustainable development are therefore matters of global concern, requiring all nations to shoulder their shared responsibility. Building a sound ecological environment – or striking a balance between protection and development – is China’s goal and chosen path, as it is for all nations.


The concept of promoting ecological progress has been widely commended in the international community. The UN Environment (UNEP) officially incorporated this ideology into its resolution at the 27th governing council in 2013. In UNEP’s report on China’s ecological progress strategy and action of 2016, the then executive director Achim Steiner declared China’s proposed ecological progress a useful exploration and concrete practice in making the concept of sustainable development a reality, and providing references whereby other countries may address similar economic, environmental and social challenges. The idea of an ecological civilization sets a new goal and charts a fresh path on the course of sustainability, marking another dimension in this high endeavor.



Achieving global ecological progress requires joint actions from all nations. On the premise of forging a community of shared future for all humankind, all countries should make joint efforts to enjoy a good ecological environment. The UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development offers a key platform for bringing this idea to fruition. Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed, at the plenary session of the BRICS Xiamen Summit on September 4, 2017, to seek coordinated and inclusive development that unifies the economy, society and the environment by virtue of the opportunity to implement the 2030 Agenda. The international community needs strengthened cooperation and exchange, in particular in the aspects of capital and technology, to build a new-model of complementary, mutual-benefit global environmental governance system. However, taking into account the differences in national situations, development stages, cultures, and politics, it is impossible for all countries to model themselves according to a single paradigm. Instead, we should, in light of its particular conditions, confluence the ecological progress idea with the flows of economic, social, political and cultural development, thus forming models that fit their respective situations.


ZHANG HUIYUAN is director of the Ecological Progress Research Center, Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences.