Green China: Chinese insights on environment and development Green China: Chinese insights on environment and development


IIED is delighted to partner with the China Academy of Social Sciences and the Ford Foundation- China on the translation and publication of Green China: Chinese insights on environment and development (published in Chinese as the China Environment and Development Review).

In a world in which China’s environmental footprint is often portrayed in alarmist terms, the chapters presented here show a more nuanced and diverse range of experiences and problems faced, and focus on how they are being tackled. This foreword is written in a week dominated by the aftermath of Japan’s huge earthquake, and the fall-out from the nuclear crisis, reactions to which include the Chinese government’s decision to halt their nuclear power plant building programme. Given the scale on which demand for energy in China has been growing, such a decision will have wide-ranging consequences for the rest of the world.


The global interconnections between energy, climate change, and land and water use mean that everyone has an interest in seeing China succeed in getting continued growth, but at lower environmental cost. China’s economy has generated an unprecedented level of growth, bringing large increases in income, and falling poverty for hundreds of millions of people. For example, per capita incomes have risen almost tenfold from 1985 to 2006, and levels of poverty have fallen from two-thirds in1981 to 10% today. This hugely impressive performance is seen by many low income countries as offering a model for rapid economic transformation that they could also follow, in preference to western models of development. But the chapters presented here show clearly that China’s model, while demonstrating remarkable performance has also brought high environmental costs within and across the country’s borders. Internally, China’s land and water has suffered from over-use of chemical fertiliser, heavy levels of air pollution, and extremely low levels of water quality with many lakes and rivers ranked as unfit to touch, let alone use for irrigation. Climate change impacts are of growing significance, especially in the north-west, where growing numbers of people face acute water shortages and depletion of aquifers. These environmental impacts are hitting both urban and rural areas, both poor and rich, through ill-health, rising levels of cancer, floods and falling productivity of water and soils. However, they are disproportionately affecting the poor, especially those in more marginal areas.


China is also having an environmental impact at international and global levels, having become the largest emitter of CO2 and nitrous oxide (NOx) emissions from agriculture, as well as SO2, and the source of a range of transboundary water problems. China’s environmental footprint is also increasingly visible around the world, given its rapid growth in demand for resources from overseas, whether wood, oil and gas, metals or agricultural commodities, such as soya and oil palm. However, it should be remembered that a good measure of these impacts are due to China meeting consumer demand elsewhere in Europe and North America. China’s performance has excited both envy and alarm, because of the scale and speed of change. There has been a single-mindedness to the Chinese pursuit of economic growth, which has successfully re-positioned China on the global stage after two centuries of relative powerlessness. The leadership has recognised the importance of growth as essential to keep the nation together. China presents a puzzle for many outsiders, because it is assumed that central government can get things done. In practice, while there is a fair body of environmental law and regulation, implementation has been limited and central government has found itself less able to achieve its ends than many outsiders would believe. Civil society and media pressures while starting to establish themselves, remain relatively weak and with limited ability to get significant shifts in policy and practice.


China’s leadership understands the need for a shift in practice, as is visible in official policy promoting an environmentally friendly and resource efficient society, and promotion of a circular economy. Ambitious targets have been set for the 12th Five Year Plan and its predecessor, as regards energy intensity and the shift towards non-fossil fuels. Government has sought to innovate with testing out of green accounting and payments for ecosystem services. There have been huge campaigns, a legacy of the Maoist years, such as the Sloping Land Conversion programme or the South-North Water Diversion project. These tend to be very ambitious, target driven programmes on a massive scale that can generate as many problems as they seek to solve. China retains a strong respect and central role for technocrats, as seen in who holds the top jobs, and strong reliance on research institutes and academics for policy advice. A technology led process of innovation has allowed for the production at scale of many innovations for sustainability, such as solar panels, biogas plants and low carbon technologies. But it has meant that there has been less interest in more holistic approaches, involving citizen action, and re-design of legal and institutional mechanisms.


China’s sustainability challenges are many and increasingly global in nature. As we advance into the 21st century, it has become ever more apparent how interconnected are our hopes for prosperity and well-being. No single country has all the resources they need, and each is faced by a different set of problems, interests and tools to work with. These chapters, written by China’s leading thinkers on environment and development, show that we need a better understanding of how China is trying to address many of the same challenges faced elsewhere, with a tool kit not dissimilar to our own. We have much to learn from their insights, but also experience to offer as we come to terms with our mutual responsibility for our one and only earth.


Camilla Toulmin – Director, IIED.


Table of Contents


  • Foreword
  • Preface
  1. Introduction: China’s environment and development challenge
  2. Understanding Environmental Pollution in China
  3. Forests in China: A problem of quality
  4. The Ecological Impact of Institutions and Policies on the Mongolian-Manchurian Grassland Ecosystem:Past and present
  5. Ecological Reconstruction in China: An overview and analysis of reforestation on former agricultural land
  6. Water Resource Scarcity in China
  7. Some Thoughts on International Environmental Cooperation After Copenhagen
  8. A New Approach to Conservation in Western China
  9. Natural versus Human Disturbances of Old-Growth Forests
  10. To Save Biodiversity, Protect Cultural Diversity: A case study of the reindeer-herding Ewenki people
  11. Environmental Rule of Law in China: Why the system isn’t working
  12. Local and Central Government Relations: Impulsive investments and sustainable development
  13. What Role Can Public Expenditure Play in Meeting China’s Environmental Protection Targets
  14. Green GDP Accounting Research: Past experience and future prospects
  15. Green GDP in China: Disputes and progress p204
  16. Ecological Values and Capitalism
  17. Environmental Resources and Natural Capital: Inefficient allocation and polarized distribution
  18. Water Scarcity, Water Transfer and Water Trade in China
  19. Water Rights from a Legal Perspective
  20. Breaching Barriers: Chinese environmental NGOs come of age