Why China Is Indispensable for Global Sustainable Development

Updated: Dec 17, 2020

Article by: Andreas Lehrfeld

Photo by Michael Valdivieso. Xi'an - China

The international community is facing significant pressure as it works to achieve a sustainable future. Floods, wildfires, rising sea levels, and the increase in frequency and intensity of extreme weather events are only the most apparent signs of climate change with which many countries worldwide are struggling to cope. One key country whose role in global sustainable development should not be underestimated is China, which has recently strengthened its efforts to address sustainability challenges at both domestic and international levels.

China’s rapid economic development, which began with an economic reform policy in the late 1970s (the so-called “Reform and Opening-Up” policy), resulted largely from the use of coal, which spurred growth rates but created detrimental effects for the environment in addition to health issues. Air and water pollution are prevalent in many parts of China, and the incidence of lung cancer is high in relation to other countries. China’s energy consumption is still defined by dependency on coal, a feature that will prevail for decades to come (see graph).

The Chinese government has acknowledged the importance of these challenges. Under current President Xi Jinping, China is transitioning from prioritising high and rapid economic growth rates to implementing a development model that focuses more on green and sustainable growth. One central aspect of Chinese development and economic policy is innovation. In its current 13th Five-Year Plan for Economic and Social Development, effective for the years 2016-2020, China highlights the role of innovation, which is “the primary driving force for development” and “must be placed at the heart of China’s development and advanced in every field, from theory to institutions, science, technology, and culture.” Innovation is being promoted not only by the state but also by private stakeholders, often in collaboration with each other, depending upon the specific policy area. For example, the Chinese government is promoting innovation in the agricultural sector, as it plans to reduce the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, strengthen water conservation in arid regions in Western China, and further develop the Chinese meteorological service system for agriculture. The Chinese government is also aiming to integrate new technologies into the Chinese energy market and accelerate the development of smart power grids to make the domestic energy supply more sustainable.

Sustainability initiatives undertaken by the Chinese government are being implemented on different levels, ranging from domestic projects to international cooperation. Within China itself, a variety of policy issues are highly relevant for sustainable development. These issues include the urban-rural gap, which is defined by growing disparities between developed and underdeveloped regions within the country. It is cities that are of central importance for sustainability in China’s case. In light of rapid urbanisation, solutions for a growing urban population have been addressed more urgently in recent years. Smart city technologies and interconnectivity represent key issues for China: the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, and the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development have all initiated their own smart city programmes. To foster sustainable development, the Chinese government has also established “sustainable development zones” in Guilin, Taiyuan, and Shenzhen that are aimed at implementing the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In Shenzhen, for example, technologies in the fields of artificial intelligence, sewage treatment, and waste utilisation will be combined to tackle pollution and improve resource management. The role of tech companies in creating innovative approaches should also not be underestimated. In the age of digitalisation, Chinese tech giants such as Alibaba, Huawei, and Tencent will shape innovative solutions for sustainable development. In this regard, in 2018, Tencent entered into a strategic partnership with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) that aims at “digital-driven ecological protection” in the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area. Also in 2018, Alibaba and L’Oréal China signed an agreement to reduce waste by using environmentally friendly packaging for L’Oréal products sold in China.  

On the international stage, China has changed its role in a fundamental way. While China was previously seen as a “hardliner in international negotiations,” especially during the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in 2009, it has presented itself as more of a “responsible stakeholder” for the international community in recent years. The country is an active advocate for the 2016 Paris Agreement. President Xi’s central foreign policy project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is aimed primarily at funding infrastructure projects in Central and South Asia, also has connotations for sustainable development. Via BRI, China promotes its economic model abroad; as BRI represents trillions of dollars in investment, the effects of strategically directed investments in areas relevant for sustainable development, mainly in the gas and oil sector, could be profound. The bilateral investment treaties (BITs) China is signing with countries as part of BRI are called “Green BITs” because they incorporate principles of sustainable development and environmental protection. China could thus help to foster sustainable development in countries that lack the resources, knowledge, or technology to pursue sustainability initiatives independently. In addition, the Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which was founded concurrently with the start of BRI, also focuses on the promotion of the SDGs; for example, it has initiated a Transport Sector Strategy concerned with financing sustainable and integrated transport systems.

Through these policies and initiatives, China has become a leader in sustainable development both domestically and internationally. While it faces enormous domestic challenges, its government and private actors are pursuing an innovation-driven approach to development that entails a large potential for achieving the SDGs at the domestic level. At the international level, China is poised to advance global sustainable development by leveraging its approach and expertise through initiatives such as BRI. China thus has a clear opportunity to combat climate change, contribute to implementing the SDGs, and continue to be a responsible partner in international society. Sustainable development is not an insular matter; rather, mutual learning and cooperation are vital for a green and sustainable future for all.

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