What is the first step in China’s sustainable growth?

By Liz

For the past 5-10 years, academics, politicians and pretty much anyone who has set foot in China have agreed that pollution is a huge problem in the country. As the world’s largest developing economy, the country is expected to see a rapid increase in its urban population over the next decade—only further increasing their carbon footprint. Most people agree that the Chinese cannot continue to expand using their current cities as a model.

In class, we discussed the merits of the Tianjin Eco-city, Masdar and other green cities. Those cities take years, if not decades, to plan, design and build. The Chinese need solutions now. What is step one of the process? We’ve been talking about China for a long time and have yet to see any policies from the Politburo. I believe the first step towards solving China’s environmental problems is greater public awareness.

The issue of Chinese carbon emissions is being blogged almost everywhere, scrutinized in American think-tanks and discussed in Harvard classrooms, yet aside from improvements during the 2008 Olympics, the Chinese government has done relatively little. A few weeks ago due to heightened public awareness and outrage, the Politburo for the first time publically addressed the air quality problem in Beijing. Premier Li Keqiang asked for patience in dealing with the problem, saying it was created over a long period of time and will take a long time to ameliorate.1 Unfortunately, China does not have a long time. They need to see action now.

Especially in Beijing, there is an urgent need to decrease the number of vehicles on the road, not only to alleviate the traffic jams, but also to stop the massive amount of carbon being emitted by those vehicles. We saw how well the BRT worked in Bogota, and in 2010 the Chinese opened a BRT in Guangzhou. The Guangzhou BRT has been an enormous success, providing a relatively cheap solution for public transportation. It cut ~30,000 car trips daily, helped decrease traffic and provided a green space for cycling and walking.2 Another southern Chinese city, Guangdong, is testing a carbon trading system.3 It will take a variety of experiments to figure out which one will work best for China.

Realistically, it will take a combination of these experiments in existing cities alongside new Eco-cities to solve China’s pollution problems in the face of rapid urbanization. So long as the Chinese remain vigilant and pressure their government to do more, they will see change. The New York Times found that there have been a growing number of citizen protests over environmentally harmful factories and power plants (see exhibit 1).4 While these protests may not directly effect change, they bring a greater awareness to the issues and will likely cause the government to act. Even though they are a communist government, the Politburo cares deeply about maintaining the peace within the country and will likely take action [in the form of better government carbon/emissions policies] to calm the growing number of citizens upset about the environment in China.