china and the world discuss the environment

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Ecological civilisation is the way forward

Ma Jun

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China’s recent Party Congress unveiled a new determination to redefine the country’s model of economic growth, writes Ma Jun. Can a greener form of development now emerge from China?

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The political report emerging from China’s recent Party Congress said that the country needs to “build an ecological civilisation”. It’s a remark that has attracted widespread attention. It represents an attempt by China’s leaders to redefine the model of growth that China should follow, taking into account an objective analysis of severe problems the country faces in terms of resources. It also represents the state of Chinese thinking on the future of global civilisation in the light of the world’s shared environmental challenges.

The idea of “ecological civilisation” is based on a reconsideration of the unsustainable model of development that has arisen out of industrial civilisation. In its history, the human race moved from hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural societies. Then the industrial revolution enveloped the west around 200 years ago. Since then, industrialisation became our main marker of civilisation. While it created unprecedented levels of material wealth, the industrial model of development, based on high levels of resources and energy consumption, also brought serious pollution and ecological destruction to the industrialised world.

Over the past 30 years, riding on the wave of globalisation, industrialisation has brought unprecedented levels of rapid economic development to the world. Global capitalism has transferred the most polluting, resource-intensive and high-risk manufacturing industries to developing countries. This has allowed developed countries to alleviate the pressure on their own environments, without making any changes to their model of growth. The environmental burden on developing countries has increased, and pollution has now reached every corner of the globe. But global climate change means that no country can isolate itself from the effects of pollution generated abroad. Every country is now faced with the urgent question of how to reduce emissions – and keep global warming in check.

Attention has now focused on China. The country’s economy has grown rapidly, but we are paying a high price in terms of our resources and environment. China currently leads the world in terms of resources consumption and pollution emissions. Ultimately, our model of industrial civilisation is unsustainable. Large-scale production and consumption by western nations has wreaked havoc on the global environment. As countries like India and China attempt to join the club of rich nations, the problems are becoming more acute. The global environment is heading quicker than ever towards crisis point. And it is with this background that China’s leadership put forward its “ecological civilisation” plan. It has profound implications not only for China’s hopes of maintaining long-term growth, but also for attempts to guarantee the security of the global environment.

Ecological civilisation is a new idea, and as such, there are no models for us to follow; putting the theory into practice will be a tough task. Ecological civilisation differs from industrial civilisation in the way it views humans’ relationship with nature. Industrial civilisation requires that nature is conquered and moulded to our needs. Ecological civilisation, however, requires that humans live in harmony with our environment, because the environment is the foundation of our very existence. As early as the 1930s, the ecologist Aldo Leopold wrote, “Civilisation is not…the enslavement of a stable and constant Earth.” Humans have spread out to inhabit every habitable corner of the Earth, and have acquired the power to destroy the ecological balance. Now we have to put down our tools and try to recover our lost sense of respect and gratitude for nature.

Ecological civilisation is not the same as pollution control or environmental recovery. It transcends traditional ideas that stem from our current model of development, based on the constant expansion of resources. It is important to recognise that, given the size of China’s population and the scale of its economy, even by taking the most extreme clean-up measures, our effects on the environment will still be severe. In order to find a way forward that is truly in harmony with nature, we need to develop clean, renewable energy on a large scale and make efficient use of resources, which should then be recycled. This fundamental change cannot be achieved by any single country, but only through the concerted efforts of China and other countries who together aim to safeguard global ecological security.

However, building an ecological civilisation does not mean entirely abandoning existing environment management systems and techniques. Many post-industrial countries are still seeking a new model of sustainable growth. Effective environmental and resources management approaches have come out of their experience, and will help in building an ecological civilisation. The challenge for a China, which is still stuck in the industrial age, is immense. But as a developing country, China can learn a lot from the experience of other countries. New technology can be used to replace existing infrastructures.

We should recognize that ecological civilisation focuses on conserving and respecting nature, but that nature cannot participate in efforts
to protect the environment. It is humans who need to act as guardians of nature.

The idea of sustainable development, according to the 1987 Brundtland commission, is “development that meets that needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Similarly, the “scientific concept of development”, advanced by China’s leaders, centres on the principle of “putting people first”. If the aim of development is really to benefit the people, we cannot destroy the very resources on which people rely for survival. The best way to ensure the public protect the environment is to implement policies that grant people the right to information and to participate in environmental affairs, and give them access to legal aid.

There are a wide variety of opinions on how to develop in the post-industrial era. The quest for an environmentally friendly model of growth has now become an important global undertaking. Ecological civilisation, China’s view of future economic development, shows that China is acting responsibly, and taking environmental issues very seriously indeed.

Background: the Congress report

In the16th Central Committee of the Communist Party’s report to the 17th Party Congress, general secretary Hu Jintao unveiled new requirements for establishing a well-off society. One was to “build an ecological civilisation and a model of growth and consumption, as well as industries, which are frugal in their use of energy and resources and protect the environment.”

Hu said the circular economy should be expanded, and there should be a focus on renewable energy. He added that if pollution emissions could be controlled effectively, the environment could be improved substantially, and that the idea of ecological civilisation should be firmly established throughout the whole of society.

A recent report by China’s State Environmental Protection Administration said that the country’s state of environmental affairs was “critical”, and frequent environmental accidents are negatively affecting the lives of many.

According to official figures, China’s chemical oxygen demand is the highest in the world, and far exceeds the country’s environmental capacity. Tests of China’s waterways show that 62% were polluted, with 90% of rivers near cities contaminated. In May, The algae-bloom incident in Taihu Lake caused widespread alarm. The area, in eastern China, had developed chemical, heavy and light industry to boost local economic growth, causing such severe pollution that the water supply to 2 million people had to be cut.


Ma Jun is the director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs

Homepage photo by V 2

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It is significant for China that environmental issues are finally brought to the table. And hopefully, this is not a political requirement to the rest of the world, simply because we are watched by some of the first nations, especailly the U.S. It is all for the sake of Chinese citizens.



A Vegetarian China Could Lead the Way

I am big fan of Mr. Ma's work on behalf of the environment in China, and agree that the government’s new recognition of "ecological civilization" is an important step.

I also firmly believe that a truly ecological civilization would embrace a vegetarian diet and cease exploiting animals.

The UN’s recent report on the impact of livestock production on the planet’s environment is unequivocal – more than any other human activity, our worldwide meat and dairy addiction is killing our biosphere.

If you doubt the potentially world-changing power of your diet, just ask yourself three questions:

1) Is your body’s health important to you?
2) Is the world’s environmental health important to you?
3) Are you compassionate?

If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” then vegetarianism offers real, immediate solutions.

Mr. Ma, would you consider publicly advocating a vegetarian diet as a way to reduce the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and improve the overall health of China’s people and environment? Would you consider advocating a scientific solution to global warming and ecological destruction which not even Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore has had the political courage to discuss?

If a Chinese environmental pioneer could lead hundreds of millions of Chinese people to adopt a vegetarian diet, he or she could potentially change the entire world.

Christopher Barden



Stop playing the victim, China.

"Global capitalism has transferred the most polluting, resource-intensive and high-risk manufacturing industries to developing countries. This has allowed developed countries to alleviate the pressure on their own environments, without making any changes to their model of growth."

Stop playing the victim, Ma. China doesn't have to pursue the capitalist model of growth, but that's what it's doing - rapaciously. It can't blame others for the path it has chosen.

Your comments seem to be in preparation for the Chinese government's next position on climate change: when it can no longer point out that the US is the biggest emitter of CO2 it will start to blame the west for bringing capitalism to China and spoiling its environment.

This is a very petty, but predictable response. We don't have time to argue who's at fault. We face an emergency that needs dealing with - right now.

"China is acting responsibly, and taking environmental issues very seriously indeed."

Is adding 1,000 new cars a day to the roads in Beijing "acting responsibly"?

Come on China, stop treating the rest of the world like fools.









good presentation of arrogance and ignorance

I have to say, comment 3 does a very good job to represent some mindsets of arrogance and ignorance in the developed (or early developed) world which exactly lead the world to the situation today.

Go to the developing world and have a look of the under poverty families, you will then understand why those nasty, humble, dirty and horrible jobs that you don't want to do anymore are the lifeline of these families and has hope for their future.

In the free capital free trade market undergoing globalisation, developing countries with cheap material and labour, lax regulation and high return of investment of course becomes a natural choice for many, so they can maximize the profit and keep raising arrogant minds that you have.

It is clever to see what China would say about the transferred pollution. But refuse to take responsibility and push the blame to who suffers it is simply just coward!

Look at Africa, look at Latin America, where is the alternative path you are pointing for China? Let alone the other examples being blamed together with China, India and Brazil. Should they just remain lagging behind and only poor tourist hot-spot of "civilized" people so you can still be proud of yourself?

Climate change and other environmental threats are emergency that needs dealing with right now. But what is even more urgent for many people in developing world is how to feed their family tomorrow. Without understanding their “immediate emergency” and do real things to help getting rid of them, you can get no one supporting you but just keep shouting to the air, hot air!!

Yes you are right; putting 1000 car on road a day is a big thing to China, that means 1000 Chinese are having their first car ever in their lives. But it may be nothing at all in your country, because many of you already get bored with your second car, or third!

Wake up from your self-righteous dream! Step down to the ground of reality and try to think from the others side before you start blaming!!



A response

I agree the west is massively at fault. There are many selfish people there who will not give up luxuries, such as flying or buying the latest TV set, for the sake of the planet. Then again, if they did China would be massively affected. All those people in Guangdong and other places producing goods for our consumerist societies would be out of work.

But you need to look at the science. The required reductions in CO2 do not permit one side to reduce its pollution and allow the other side to grow until it meets its development aims. We're in a crazy situation where people in the west are saying: "Why should I give up my car because my CO2 reductions will be replaced by what China produces in two years at its current rate of growth." At the same time the Chinese are saying: "The west has got to reduce its pollution first because it's all its fault." We're in a state of paralysis.

As for the Chinese having their own cars for the first time, this is an empty dream. Again, look at the science. And look at the sky in Beijing most days. It's leading us nowhere but to the destruction of our planet. These cars won't be any use in the kind of world we are going to leave to our grandchildren, will they? Or don't you believe it will get that bad?

You rightly point out that the western, capitalist nations (which China also is now) have caused and are causing the damage, but bizarrely you think you should copy it because you have the right to. Put simplistically, you're saying: "Your mistakes are terrible, but nevertheless, I'm going to repeat them whether you like it or not." This is a strange proposition.

As for your assumptions about my character, I don't own a car for environmental reasons. I don't fly on holiday for environmental reasons. I recycle everything I can recycle and turn off computers, TVs etc when not in use. I am also a member of the British Green Party, and consider myself to be a socialist. I agree with everything you say about how the developing world is being exploited by the developed world. The reason I only talk about China on here is because this is called chinadialogue, not indiadialogue or brazildialogue. China also represents a fifth of humanity, so is particularly important. China has a huge problem with its environment and I believe it is quite right that pressure needs to be brought, just like with the US, India etc, over its track record. I'm sure the Chinese government understands this but like I said, stop playing the victim.



To comment 3 and 5

Sorry but I'd say at least I do not see China is "playing the victim", because it IS indeed one the victims. And as a reader I don't think the comment No.4 is saying "Your mistakes are terrible, but nevertheless, I'm going to repeat them whether you like it or not", as you understood, but simply just arguing about the fact.

First of all, the reductions of Carbon emission from developed countries are actually partly being transferred to developing countries, who are producing goods for global consumptions, and suffering the emissions. I can hardly agree that this is the "proper way" to reduce "national" emission.

I can't agree with you more about looking at the science really. Let's review the UNSD figures of Passenger Cars being used per Thousand People (in 2002): Australia 515; Canada 560; UK 445; India 7; Kenya 8; China 10. And USA’s level was 739, in the year of 1980!

No I'm NOT saying that "You have huge amount of cars so Chinese/Indian should have as same as yours", but just point out the fact.

For individuals, to change lifestyles, as far as what you did, is appreciated. Climate change has becoming one of the hottest issues in the world and I truly believe more homework would be helpful to make the debate more meaningful.



Another response

"Sorry but I'd say at least I do not see China is "playing the victim", because it IS indeed one the victims."

So what you're suggesting is that China has been forced at proverbial gun point to accept western polluting industries.

What I'm saying is in the absence of alternative technology, the west has to seriously ration the amount of car and air journeys it makes and rapidly increase its use of renewable energy (it is currently failing at that). At the same time I'm saying that given the current technology it would be globally catastrophic for China and India to have the same ratio of population/car ownership as the west.

According to the most up-to-date science, we have to stabilise CO2 emissions by 2015 and then start to reduce them. If the combined 2.5 billion population of India and China strive for and achieve the car ownership ratios you mentioned earlier then the above target will not be possible. I know that's unpalatable but it's the truth.

China's just spent 1.6 billion yuan on Chang'e 1 and is spending a similar amount on the new CCTV tower in Beijing. Surely given the science presented to us by the IPCC the money would have been better spent on developing technology to tackle climate change? This philosophy also goes for the much more money Britain and the US have spent on the devastating wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, just so you don't think I'm demonising China.



it is appreciated

Your close concern to China is really appreciated, so are your own efforts to reducing individual ecological footprints. If you had lowered your voice and fingers in your previous comment and starting from understanding and consideration to developing world, as you did in the later comment, I would not have been so hostile to you, for what I would like to apologise now. I can see now our points start merging.

However, as pointed out in the other comment, no one is saying China or developing world wants to copy the development path of west until they reach the development aims. That simply requires more than ten Earths to support, and no one is foolish enough to aim at that, nor can they. I hope you have heard of "common but differentiate responsibility". Facing global challenges such as climate change (but not only this), it is important to have clear duty and responsibility for every actor in participation. It is simply not right to treat everyone in the same way, and for this reason I urged you to think more from developing world's side and understand their immediate concern. Pumping hot air with splendid slogan really doesn't help in this case. Face the fact and realise the difference is the first step to a widely accepted long term framework of action, but no one is saying developing world will do no contribution to this and just pushing that to west.

There has been a lot effort done in developing countries to tackle climate change and trying to slow down their emission growth, even though some of them are not for climate change directly. The developing world is the most vulnerable to environmental threats and they even take it more seriously than many developed countries as that is a matter of life or death to them. If you lower your position and pay attention, you can find many reports on that too, including the car issue you raised. They might not be as obvious as those in developed countries, but you have to stand at their side, not yours before you can appreciate that. Again, there is a question mark, as highlighted by pollution transfer, on how much west has really done, and how much the effort in developing countries has been overshadowed by that.

Finally, I would emphasise that again, it is a very complicated world and an even more complicated issues for climate change and other environmental threat, don't be simplistic as you appear in the first comment. China is not playing victim, nor are other developing countries. Everyone is victim of degraded environment, and even more so for people in developing world. The fact is that, they have not been treated as victims as they are for centuries!

Tao Wang



我不想评价战争,因为它自会有它最后的裁决。你提出的其它观点我已经在之前的评论中回答过了。希望对你有帮助,如果你也这样认为的话。Tao Wang

sorry to see that

I am very sorry to see your new comment goes back to the position you had before. In order to reduce the unnecessary translation workload for chinadialogue, I will keep this short and hope to draw an end.

1. You definitively need to learn again the meaning of "have to", especially its meaning when you are facing billions of hungry mouths!
2. I repeat here, no one said developing countries should target at those consumerist and wasteful lifestyle of developed world today, and none have taken it as a granted right of people in developing countries, only except you keep assuming that and make it ground of your argument.
3. A nation has a whole lot of emergencies and priorities to be dealt with, and therefore cannot afford to throw all its resources at one basket. Although individuals like you with sufficient living conditions can, which we appreciate, please be more considerate to other's decision. I don't want to comment on THE war, it will have its own fair judgement and consequence at the end.
The other points you raised should have been answered by my previous comment. Hope that is helpful to you, only if you so wish too.

Tao Wang


Tao Wang,首先感谢你的致歉。这里谈到的不是所有的西方人都是只认钱的贪婪资本家。同时,有一点也很重要的是,你要理解把污染类的工作转向发展中国家并不像我们把脏和累的工作转移给穷人这么简单。举个例子,我的叔叔曾经在过去很多年里是个报酬丰厚的矿工,但是现在他只是个收入不怎么好的卡车司机。他和成千上万的在英国的老百姓正在努力阻止他们的工作进入发展中国家。现在英国几乎已经没有制造业,因为都已经被转移了。



Thank you


Firstly, thanks for the apology. I hoped I've demonstrated here that not all westerners are rapacious capitalists who only care about money.

I think also it's important for you to understand that the transfer of dirty jobs to the developing world is not as simple as being just a case of handing down the work we didn't want to the poor. For instance, my uncle was for years a very well paid miner. He's now a not-so-well paid lorry driver. Him and hundreds of thousands of others, laobaixing if you like, in Britain fought hard to stop their jobs going to the developing world. Britain virtually has no manufacturing sector nowadays because it has all been transferred. This isn't because ordinary people didn't want the dirty industries (in fact they did, because jobs in the steel and mining industries were well paid), it is because the unaccountable leaders in our capitalist economies colluded with equally unaccountable post communist leaders among others in the developing world. The losers, as we both know, are the ordinary people who have to suffer the pollution in the developing world and the skilled workers in the west who've had to take lower paid jobs in the service sector.

If we carry on with free market capitalism in its current form, in a hundred years or so China, India and Brazil, will be transferring their dirty jobs to Africa, and the debate we're having now will be repeated.

As for "common but differentiated responsibilities", I agree with that standpoint. The west has to use its wealth advantage to develop climate change-tackling technology and do the decent thing and transfer that technology free of charge, or at least at cost price, without patents to developing countries. However, developing countries cannot wait until they're fully industrialised before making drastic cuts in CO2 emissions, or shall we say 不可以两天钓鱼三天晒网!

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