5 reasons why China is the world’s sustainable development superpower

China is often portrayed as an environmental and social villain by the West. However, from fighting pollution to poverty alleviation, no country has done more for sustainable development, argues Junice Yeo.

solar disc in China
A solar panel disc heats water in a kettle for school children in the Village Primary School, Dongxiang County, Gansu Province, China. Image: World Bank Photo Collection, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

As the world gets caught up in the looming US-China trade war set to shake up the capital markets, a shadow has been cast over what is arguably the bigger, more important story of our times—China’s role in the sustainable development of our planet.  

When I began my professional career in China 15 years agoevidence of business activity impacting the environment and society was already gaining prominenceWhat were deemed as quality control problems and shoddy health and safety practices ballooned into crises of epic proportions. Major scandals rooted in corruption and gross negligence were aplentyand air pollution levels across the manufacturing zones where major cities were located was averaging hazardous levels for weeks on end.   

Coming back to China to live for a third timeit is an interesting period to be here again. Having witnessed its major cities transform from chaotic to cosmopolitan over two decadesit is clear that China has committed to cleaning up its act. This country may be one of superlatives, but the most significant one to me is no longer that of the world’s biggest polluter, but the real game-changer in clean, green solutions 

China has done more in a decade than any country in the world to transition from fossil fuels.

While the country is not short of critics – be it ethics and corruption, human rights, environmental management, or labour standards – there are many reasons why China’s role in sustainable development should be taken seriously. Here are five:

1. What China has done for the poorno other nation in human history has made possible  

China is reducing poverty at a rate unparalleled in human history. Since the country started its reforms four decades ago, the government has successfully lifted 800 million people out of poverty, accounting for nearly 70 per cent of the world’s poverty reduction. Poverty eradication continues to be the Chinese government’s key focus in its 2020 Plan, and while the scale of the programme’s success speaks for itself, many social issues such as skills development, community governance and protection of “left-behind” children remain high priority. 

2. China’s war against pollution is showing effects 

For years, China’s cities connote images of choking smog, impossible traffic and polluted waterways. Mainstream media seem to jump at every opportunity to plaster what have become stock images of China’s dirty past to represent its impending future. Today, people based in China will tell you something different. Keeping in mind the scale of China, its major cities and hubs have become successful testbeds for green solutions on every possible front – from sustainable city planning to forestry management, electric vehicles (EV) to blue sky battles. China accounted for half of EV sales worldwidenearly all of the world’s electric buses are currently operating in China. In fact, the country – along with India - is behind the significant increase in green foliage that our planet is seeing from space.

China’s stringent environmental measures have already had significant impact on both local and foreign industries operating in China. Over the past five years, the Chinese government issued - the “Air Ten”, “Water Ten” and “Soil Ten” policy measures one after another, making it clear that it was serious about fighting pollution on all fronts. Vexing as it may be for operations heavily dependent on their China-based suppliers, many companies are acknowledging the need to bite the bullet and accept that these measures are becoming China’s new normal.

3. China’s energy mix cannot be fixed overnight 

China’s reliance on coal has long been a pain point in the world’s fight against global warming. After all, the country is responsible for more than one quarter of all global carbon emissions—more than the United States and the European Union combinedYet, despite being the poster child for dirty air and industrial pollution, China has done more in a decade than any country in the world to transition from fossil fuels. While news of coal-funded projects continue to surface even in 2019 as China balances this transition with the heavy burden of potentially stranded coal assets (not forgetting the millions of coal workers out of work), the country deserves recognition for its commitment to investing billions more in low-carbon power generation and other clean energy technologies.

4. China is arguably already the leader of the next industrial revolution 

After a century of civil turmoil, China’s four decades of economic momentum has allowed the country to leapfrog the rest of the world in terms of technological advancements. Already widely accepted as a leader in artificial intelligence, 5G telecoms, the internet of thingselectric vehicles and battery technology, China’s hand in the tech game is not only extremely valuable for sustainable development, the world’s most pressing issues of food security, climate change and pollution would benefit greatly from such advancements. Chinese tech companies will no doubt be formidable players, helping the world integrate sustainable projects with advanced digitalisation.

5. China’s global alliance from the Belt & Road Initiative is a real opportunity to fight poverty

Critics of the China-led Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), such as the United States, have been quick to pass judgement on China’s diplomatic intentions with debt-stricken countries. Yet, given the scale of the project to date, and the number of members from developing and developed nations alike in support of the BRI, there is a convincing argument for helping the poorer nations move up the value chain through market access and infrastructural development. In last month’s Belt Road Forum, Premier Xi Jinping emphasised the need to ensure that the project is green and sustainable. As the British finance minister Philip Hammond remarked“The BRI is an extraordinarily ambitious vision. To turn that vision into a sustainable reality, it must work for everyone involved. China’s engagement with member states will be a true test of its will and ambition to build a better tomorrow.   

The climate emergency the world faces is real and threatens all of usRather than looking through a filtered lens depicting a new global leader challenging the status quo, it is time for us to acknowledge that China is doing its part as a sovereign state to address the serious threat looming on the horizon.

Opportunities abound for businesses and governments alike to work with China to fulfill its environmental targets. China’s door is open. Let’s cast aside our fears and prejudices, and focus on the real issue at hand to give  future generations their very best shot at survival.

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