December 14, 2010


China's Movement toward Environment Protection and Sustainability: JFS Expanding to Promote "China for Sustainability" and "Asia for Sustainability"

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.99 (November 2010)

Japan for Sustainability (JFS) marked its eighth anniversary in August 2010 as a non-profit organization providing information on environmental sustainability efforts in Japan. It is widening its scope now to include promoting "Asia for Sustainability" (AFS) as a focus -- by disseminating information on advanced initiatives in other Asian countries and regions with the world -- and has been seeking cooperation with other countries that share the same ambition. Such international collaboration is a first attempt for JFS, and it started by reaching out to key players in China.

In this issue of the JFS newsletter, we report on environment and sustainability initiatives in China following interviews with persons we met through our AFS activities.

The Chinese Government

In 2008 and 2009, we had opportunities to talk with Chinese governmental officials about the actual state of the environment in China, and asked how they perceive environmental issues and how they are going to address those issues as a nation.

JFS Evolves toward "Asia for Sustainability" -- China's Environmental Initiatives, Part 1 & Part 2

Lecture by Government Official from Chinese Embassy (only in Japanese)

From them, we learned that China has been working on environmental issues as part of its national policies since the 1970s. However, it has been difficult for the government to actually implement effective environmental measures, because economic growth has been a priority since around the same time. Meanwhile, the problems of desertification, air and water pollution, and waste in the nation have become increasingly serious.

Under these circumstances, in 2007, the government changed its economic policies, long focused on pursuing gross domestic product (GDP) growth alone, and raised the priority of environmental measures by launching the idea of the "Scientific Development Concept." Under it, not only GDP growth but also the improvement of energy efficiency and the reduction of contaminants are taken into account when the central government evaluates the performance of local governments. This effective evaluating system is called an "environmental veto system," where even a local government with otherwise good performance may fail if its action on environmental issues is poor.

China's environmental efforts drew public attention domestically and internationally throughout the preparations for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and some campaigns started then are still continuing in Beijing under the leadership of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). For example, the "26 Degree Celsius" campaign encourages hotels, restaurants and public facilities to set the temperature of air conditioners at 26 degrees Celsius or higher during the summer for energy conservation, and the "No Car Day" campaign encourages citizens to leave their cars at home one day a month.

Environmental NGOs

Currently, air and water pollution might be the most serious environmental problems facing China, because air and water directly affect people's health and their daily lives. Aiming to implement watershed management measures for the environmental conservation and restoration of Lake Tai, the third largest lake in China, a workshop was held at China's Nanjing University in January 2010, and Noriko Sakamoto, JFS's communication director, participated in it. This international workshop was meant to help build a network among government, researchers, and environmental NGOs in Japan, the United States, and China, and was hosted by three organizations: the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; the Institute of Developing Economies, Japan External Trade Organization; and the Center for Environmental Management and Policy at Nanjing University. Through the workshop, participants were able to share strategies for lake water pollution prevention in the U.S. and Japan, as well as countermeasures taken by relevant players in China.

The water quality around the Lake Tai basin has continued to worsen due to both industrial and household wastewater. An outbreak of blue-green algae in the lake in the early summer of 2007 put people living in the basin areas into a water crisis, and Wuxi, one of the cities that draws water from the lake, had to suspend its water supply temporarily. As the basin area extends across a couple of provinces, it is still difficult to see the cross-provincial cooperation needed to tackle this problem. Participants in the workshop discussed how to involve the people and industries that are discharging wastewater in taking action to solve the problem.

The workshop in Nanjing provided the opportunity to meet people from eight Chinese environmental NGOs. Also in June 2010, Kazunori Kobayashi, JFS manager, visited five Chinese environmental NGOs and exchanged information and opinions.

As introduced in the November 2009 issue of the JFS newsletter, the number of Chinese environmental NGOs has been increasing rapidly since 2005, and more people, especially students, are beginning to be concerned about environmental issues. However, environmental awareness among the majority of people appears to be still low in general. Although highly motivated students are said to be supporting the activities of Chinese environmental NGOs, the groups still face challenges in regard to sustaining their activities, such as with fundraising.

A Report on the Development of Environmental NGOs in China

Industries in China

In regard to Chinese industries, a person from one of the Chinese environmental NGOs, China Dialogue, expressed their view during Kobayashi's visit, saying that "the concept of corporate social responsibility (CSR) has just started to be introduced to business people in China, but it hasn't really taken root and is not yet fully developed. It still remains loosely defined as being a social contribution, so to speak."

China Dialogue

There is a difference in traditional business customs in China: there are neither norms to disclose management information with regard to purchasing, manufacturing and distributing, nor requirements by society to do so. Therefore, medium-sized businesses do not have sufficient awareness about the effects of pollution on the surrounding environment stemming from their manufacturing processes, or their countermeasures. Under the situation that information and data on the sources and volumes of pollutants are seldom available, it is very difficult to tackle pollution problems.

Even with this lack of sufficient information, the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, directed by Ma Jun, has been coping with the situation since the 1990s. The Institute provides the "China Water Pollution Map" and "China Air Pollution Map" on its website. Based on publicly available data provided by local governments, the institute lists here the companies which discharge pollutants exceeding emission standards, and releases reports about environmental pollution from business practices jointly with Greenpeace China, sometimes calling for boycotts against polluting companies' products.

Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs

Besides pushing protests, the institute also seeks solutions through dialogue with companies. Already, it has helped electronic manufacturer Panasonic and the world's largest retailer, Walmart, to take measures against pollution in production and distribution activities in China. Although the number of local companies having sound awareness on the environment is still limited in China, global companies with new businesses there are more likely to react promptly from the fear of risking the reputation of their corporate brands when environmental pollution at their production sites is revealed.

According to Richard Welford, chairman of CSR Asia, which provides corporate social responsibility information in Asia, some of large Chinese companies aiming to grow to be global through business operations in international markets in other countries are more focused on the environment and CSR. More Chinese companies are now expected to advance their efforts in the areas of environmental protection and sustainability, and to disseminate their initiatives widely.

CSR Asia


Government officials and environmental NGOs in China -- at least those that JFS members have met so far -- often say that they want to learn more about the world's advanced efforts and implement them in China. Learning from the world, we also can see China moving forward with its own initiatives according to its local circumstances. In regard to publicity on the environment, China is currently focusing on raising environmental awareness domestically, but real efforts to share information on its environmental efforts and sustainability with the outside world have yet to begin in earnest.

Along with its rapid economic growth, in 2007, China became the world's largest carbon dioxide emitter. Meanwhile, it also was the top nation in the world with the largest wind power generating capacity in 2009. Although China's moves are drawing attention from the rest of the world, information on environmental and sustainability issues is generally limited to specific fields and audiences. China appears to need media that can provide broad coverage of the country's environmental and sustainability initiatives -- whether the initiatives be large or small, and whether they are being done by government, companies, local communities or individuals.

JFS hopes to support China's effort to transmit environmental information to the outside world by using JFS's experience and global networks developed through our activities. We are currently establishing a structure (China for Sustainability) to collect information and write reports with the help of JFS volunteers, so we will be providing the world with more information on environmental efforts going on China in the near future!

In order to help make the world more sustainable, while expanding our original scope of activity from Japan (JFS) to cover Asia (AFS), and then to entire planet through World for Sustainability (WFS), we look forward to collaborating with people in China, Asia, and throughout the world.

Written by Noriko Sakamoto