December 19, 2008


JFS Evolves toward "Asia for Sustainability" -- China's Environmental Initiatives, Part 1

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.75 (November 2008)
Written by Junko Edahiro, Co-Chief Executive, Japan for Sustainability

For the past six years, Japan for Sustainability (JFS) has worked to be a driving force toward a sustainable Japan and sustainable world by spreading environmental information from Japan to the world. Now I have a new dream: to grow from JFS into Asia for Sustainability (AFS), and eventually World for Sustainability (WFS).

As one step toward this dream, we would like to start providing more information on environmental activities and thinking in Asia. This article is the first round of the series.

On October 26, 2008, the China-Japan High Level Forum on Energy Saving and Environmental Protection Policies was hosted by the Development Research Center (DRC), State Council of P.R. China. At the conference, I made a presentation about citizen and NGO initiatives in Japan, and had an opportunity to exchange opinions with people from the DRC at various meetings, and at a luncheon and dinner. We shared a common view that it is important to let Japan and the world know about environmental initiatives in China.

The next day I had an interview with Dr. Lin Jiabin, the Deputy Director of the Department of Social Development Research, the Development Research Center, State Council, P.R. China. For an hour and a half, I listened to him talk about China's environmental policies, particularly about global warming measures. Here we share Dr. Lin's talks on what they are aiming at and thinking in China.


EDAHIRO: Please tell me what China has been doing for the environment.

DR. LIN: China has been working on environmental issues since 1972, the same year a Chinese delegation attended the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden. The following year the first national conference on environmental protection was held. In 1994, China formulated the world's first Agenda 21, which enabled sustainable development to be introduced into national policies.

China's Agenda 21 China's National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) was first established in the Ministry of Construction, and in the institutional reforms in 1988 it became an independent agency. After a recent reorganization, it became the Ministry of Environmental Protection, vested with stronger authority.

Regarding the environment, a dozen environment-related laws were established for prevention and control of water and air pollution. In the summer of 2008, the Circular Economy Promotion Law was established.

Although our country has actively promoted the establishment of environmental laws at an early stage, I think the problem is with their implementation and enactment. Due to the problems in systems and the relationship between the central government and local governments, the laws are frequently not implemented exactly as originally intended.

At the 16th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, the policy of "a new road to industrialization" was hammered out. The conventional development plan put more importance on industries by keeping resource prices low, which has caused waste of resources and increased pollution. Then the "new road to industrialization" policy set its major goal of reducing resource consumption and pollution.

Furthermore, it tries to promote such new industrialization by promoting information technologies.

EDAHIRO: When did you start addressing the issue of global warming, and how are you tackling it in China?

DR. LIN: We have made positive efforts to tackle it for about four or five years after the 16th National Congress of the Communist Party of China was held. At that time, the pressure on China increased in the midst of rising international concern over the issue. Two years ago, the Energy Saving and Emission Reduction Leading Group and the Global Warming Countermeasures Leading Group were organized in the central government to comprehensively confront global warming, with Chinese premier Wen Jiabao as the head and representatives of each ministry and agency as members.

These two groups set a goal of reducing energy consumption per unit of sales by 20 percent by 2010 and reducing major environmental indicators such as chemical oxygen demand and sulfur dioxide concentrations by 10 percent. They also encourage people to act towards attaining these goals.

EDAHIRO: I heard that China has recently initiated an effective system for evaluating local government officials.

DR. LIN: Yes. It is called "an environmental veto system." With this system, not only the growth of GDP but also the improvement of energy efficiency and the reduction of contaminants are considered when the central government evaluates local governments. Even a local government with good performance may fail if its performance on environmental issues is poor.

There are two means by which the central government can affect local governments: one is through influencing the selection of senior authorities or officials and the other is reconsidering the budget allocations. But it is difficult for the central government to affect local governments' bureaucratic appointments without some extraordinary reason. Similarly, it cannot directly influence policy implementation by local governments through financial allocation because the allocations are for poorer local governments.

The Chinese government has a five-tiered structure, moving from the central government down to towns and villages. The leader of each local government is appointed by its upper government. We do not employ the direct election system like in Japan. As a result, a lower government seriously cares about its upper government's opinions and tries to obey them. This means that a lower government's way of thinking and tackling things can be altered by changing the evaluation criteria of its upper government. This is the background of changing the system of evaluation.

While the GDP growth rate was the only evaluation criterion so far, environmental reform and solving problems related to people's livelihood are now included as well. Since this institutional reform started, the number of experimental approaches has been increasing, and local governments are trying to become "an ecological province," "an ecological city," and so on.

These approaches were supported by cognitive evolution against the reality. In other words, first you understand the problems in the mechanism by asking the question, "Why have environmental issues never been practically remedied even though we have laws?" Then you can make progress toward the resolution of the issues.

EDAHIRO: You mentioned the "Scientific Development Concept" at yesterday's meeting. Could you elaborate on this?

DR. LIN: China launched the idea of the Scientific Development Concept at the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party in October 2007. It is part of a big wave of development economics. Behind this move, there was an understanding that pursuing economic growth alone has led to "growth without development" in terms of social welfare; that is, people's well-being has not been improved despite the growth in GDP. To address the issue, a new idea has emerged, with the focus shifting from "growth" to "development." It suggests that GDP is not everything, and asks what is really necessary to make people happy. This is an idea that places emphasis on the overall development of human beings.

The word "growth" in Chinese simply means "to increase or become larger," and is used in such phrases as "an increase in GDP." Previously, the words "growth" and "development," have been considered to be essentially the same idea in China, but people have come to recognize the difference.

The new concept of "scientific development" sees the importance of public welfare, which leads to people's happiness and well-being. It aims to enhance their quality of life by improving social security, housing, medical services, and pensions. GDP has been widely used as an criteria to measure economic development, but now various other criteria are being examined to measure overall human development.

This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of China's reform and opening up. Concerning the reform, specifically market reform, I regret to say that it has gone too far. In the process toward a market economy, the government gave up its role, thus causing various problems in the society.

Such problems are often seen in medical services, housing, and education.

In the educational field, for example, an increasing number of universities set up their own companies, and some professors appear to be more enthusiastic about making money than teaching students. On the face of it, this trend seems to revitalize universities, but it is questionable whether these universities can provide meaningful education.

Since a few years ago, China has been reflecting on these circumstances and recognizing the need to review the government's role and the role of the market. This has resulted in the new policies focused on securing medical services, social welfare, and housing.

(To be continued in Part 2.)