Changhua Wu: From population control to climate, China needs a system change

Reading time: 4 minutes
30 October 2015

Following the release of the UNFCCC’s synthesis report of the INDCs – national climate plans that have been submitted so far by 146 countries around the world – Changhua Wu, Greater China Director, The Climate Group, details how the Government of China is planning to steer its constantly transforming economy toward a low carbon future.

Sustainable development is at the center stage of the global agenda. China is on it. The US is on it. The EU is on it. And this packed stage has finally converged to steer collectively toward a new paradigm.

From the establishment of the UN Sustainable Development Goals at the end of September in NYC to the 146 nations that have submitted their INDCs to tackle climate change – the synthesis of which was released today by the UNFCCC – this momentum for change is all heading toward Paris in COP21, which begins in exactly one month.

In between all of this, the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee concluded its 5th Plenum of the 18th Party Congress, approving the guidelines of the 13th Five-Year Plan of National Economic and Social Development. Or, as I like to call it, China's sustainable development plan.

In the current economic recovery mood, growth remains at the top of the agenda. In particular, the Chinese Communist Party has its mandatory commitment to its people by 2020 to improve equality by doubling urban and rural population per capita income over 2010 levels. From a GDP growth perspective, China will have no major risk of failing even in its current economic downturn. The Chinese economy is still growing at an average annual rate of 6.9 or 7%, and the commitment will be delivered with annual growth slowing just slightly to a rate of 6%.

And of course, green has to be the color of this growth. Resource saving and environmental protection remain a basic national strategy for the government, which is aiming to achieve obvious improvement of environmental quality in five years in order to lay a good foundation that will advance an economy built on global ecological security.

Key elements of the green agenda include:

  • Rational structuring: focusing on urban, agriculture and ecological security, as well as preserving the natural coastline.
  • Zoning: a program to guide land development, management and protection.
  • Industrial: renewed focus on low carbon and circular systems that use modern, clean energy infrastructure that is safe and highly efficient – with close-to-zero carbon emission demonstration projects.
  • Resource saving: an intensive, circular utilization of resources.
  • Polluters pay: energy use right, water use right, pollution levy, carbon emissions allowances allocation system.
  • Behaviour change: improving social awareness and behavior change toward saving energy.
  • Environmental governance: quality improvement as a core task of restrictive environmental governance, in particular focusing on air, water and soil action plans, as well as vertical governance at the provincial level.
  • Ecological security: conservation as a first priority, with emphasis on natural recovery and ecological restoration projects; large scale greening projects, as well as improving governance of natural forests protection and blue ocean and bays initiatives.

This "laundry" list is long. But what is not adequately articulated, is a system change, which is fundamental to steer China toward delivering its Sustainable Development Goals. While President Xi's ‘ecological civilization’ clearly illustrates the desire for system change, the current policy and plan design falls short.

A system change or redesign would offer China – and because of China’s size, the rest of the global economy – an opportunity to lay down the foundations and infrastructure for an efficient, prosperous, low carbon economy. This is expected to be a journey that requires all of us to be in it. Not only this generation, but also future generations.

Another difficult question is relaxing population control policy when families are now allowed to have two children instead of one. This policy is now under the international media spotlight. But what does it mean for the sustainability agenda?

This policy will sure help ease the population aging and labor challenge. But it is also expected to add huge ecological and resource constraints. On average, an additional 3-8 million lives will be born to the world. Yet when they grow up, they will of course require more infrastructure and consume more products and services, which naturally contributes to GDP growth.

If the innovative low carbon development does not catch up with the rising demand of materials, infrastructure and resources, we will remain imagining a future that never becomes reality.

Immediate system change is required to lay the foundation for the infrastructure and governance needed to foster sustainable development. This is the only way we can mobilize the necessary resources to get China, and our global economy, speeding the right way on the sustainability track.

By Changhua Wu

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