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China and Conservation: Kung Fu Panda Saves the Planet

It is hard to imagine that China, with its notorious smut-permeated skies, may prove to be the global leader on climate change action. But that is exactly what will play out in Paris this December. Environmentalists, protesters and politicians will converge on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change summit, each vying for media attention to decry corporations or declare some superficial agreement. But it will be China that shows us a pragmatic path toward renewable energy that could prove to be a global game changer.

For two decades China mesmerized institutional investors with its phenomenal economic growth rates. However, the environmental cost has been devastating. China surpasses even the U.S. as the largest producer of greenhouse gases. The country’s new leadership has taken that cost into account. They have resolved to reverse the damage by creating a new growth trajectory built on environmental economics.

On April 25, 2015, China’s all-powerful Communist Party Central Committee and State Council adopted a document entitled “Opinions of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the State Council Toward Development of Ecological Civilization.” Despite its clumsy title, “Ecological Civilization” represents the single most defining decision of any government toward combating climate disruption. It mandates a new type of growth, built around renewable and efficient energy resource technologies and conservation of water as overarching national policy. It introduces new measurements of economic and social accomplishment and calls for fresh values that displace consumption with conservation. This document reverses policies of overgrowth that characterized the past decade of China’s development.

I present here an insider viewpoint on China’s quantum policy shift, having worked as senior adviser to China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection throughout the drafting and lobbying process behind “Ecological Civilization.”

To put this decision in perspective, one must understand the industrial growth policies of the past ten years. The previous political administration, of president Hu Jintao and premier Wen Jiabao, followed the “concept of scientific development,” which perceived social and political stability as maintained only through accelerated materialist growth. The official view discarded environmental protection as an inevitable cost of growth. Needless to say, it was not very scientific.

The GDP growth target was officially fixed at a minimum of 8 percent, reflecting the belief that this figure could assure broad-based employment. Officials were promoted primarily on the basis of GDP. This opened a Pandora’s box of government-promoted fixed-asset investments in redundant infrastructure and real estate, accompanied by a plethora of unregulated polluting industries. Societal values of wealth accumulation and conspicuous consumption were encouraged as measures of social success. Life in China became hopelessly corrupt.

The current administration, of President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, recognized early on that such a growth model was unsustainable. Environmental crisis was sparking social volatility and undermining political stability. The trajectory of growth had to shift and evolve a new framework based on renewable and efficient energy, water recycling and conservation systems, with smart urban planning.

Regridding China through state infrastructure development for clean energy and water conservation, and the private sector manufacture of every conceivable gadget to get there, will become China’s new employment driver. It will provide jobs not only for blue-collar workers but also for college, master’s and doctoral students whose increasing numbers are changing China’s social structure. A new wave of technology and research reconfigured into economics is required to absorb them, requiring educational programs to promote innovation and skills in creating a green, cyclical and low-carbon development track for China.

“Ecological Civilization” overturns the past decade’s metrics of economic and social success. Deng Xiaoping’s adage “To get rich is glorious” is not quoted in the China of Xi Jinping. New measurements of social success emphasize conservation, thrift and sustainability, juxtaposing China’s newfound values of conservation against America’s ideals of overconsumption.

Climate change can no longer be just an excuse for grand, airy political speeches in a world demanding credible and pragmatic solutions. In acting decisively on climate change, China may once again set the rules for a new global game. America could easily lead by offering our planet the renewable and efficient energy solutions it needs; we have the technological advantage. Tragically, however, we lack the political will.

China’s quantum shift to renewable and efficient energy is a global game changer. Technology and manufacturing for new lifestyles of planetary integrity represent a huge business opportunity, not a barrier. A plethora of creative funds and financial instruments will be required to leverage this opportunity to the fullest. While dysfunctional Washington politics fails to lead us, the financial sector can. The fight against fossil fuels is not about tree hugging. It is the next global business megatrend about to happen.

Laurence Brahm is an international lawyer, mediator and economist. He has served as senior adviser to China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection in drafting the “Ecological Civilization” policy framework and is architect of the Himalayan Consensus economic paradigm, a nonprofit devoted to sustainable economic development.