River cleaners onboard a boat patrol a canal flowing through the village of Zhushan, southeast China’s Zhejiang Province on October 12 (XINHUA)
Ecological problems are a common challenge to all nations in a fast changing world. China has realized the importance of the issue as rapid economic growth and industrial development are accompanied by growing environmental concerns. Zhang Huiyuan, director of the Ecological Progress Research Center, Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences, gave a comprehensive assessment of China's environmental efforts and its part in the world's sustainable development. The article was originally published in the November issue of China Today magazine. Edited excerpts follow:
Countries across the globe face the common challenge of sustainable development. It was in 2007 that China first proposed the idea of promoting ecological progress, thereby embedding the concept of sustainable development in the context of human civilization. Ten years on, especially since the convening of the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), China has made considerable headway in its actions as well as advocacy of ecological progress. The country has improved ecological environment management and governance, and also freely shared its experience with other nations.
Bold progress and achievements
Since the 18th National Congress of the CPC convened in 2012, great importance has been attached to incorporating China's ecological progress into every facet of social, political, economic and cultural development. In this regard, the Chinese Government has brought into effect several major policies that have produced significant results.
The theories applicable to ecological progress, newly refined and expressed in plain language, have raised public ecological awareness. A complete theoretical system has so far formed with the institution establishment at the core. The system aims to build harmonious relations between humans and nature by strengthening environmental management and promoting ecological culture and green life.
Both the institution and system geared to promoting ecological progress have been basically established. Meanwhile, China has formulated or amended laws on environmental protection, atmospheric pollution prevention, water pollution prevention and soil pollution prevention, all of which signify remarkable progress in the country's legal construction in environmental issues.
There have been further improvements to the ecological environment. On the one hand, China has carried out action plans aimed at controlling and preventing air, water and soil pollution. The country is drawing up an ecological "red line" that will declare certain regions under mandatory and rigorous protection, and protect and restore the natural ecology of mountains, waters, forests, farmland and lakes. The rural environment has considerably improved since the advancement of comprehensive management of the countryside.
Legal enforcement has also been tightened. The judicial interpretation of the Supreme People's Court and the Supreme People's Procuratorate supplements the criteria for violating environmental law and lowers the benchmarks for convictions, and the Supreme People's Court has set up an adjudication division specifically for environmental resources. The environmental supervision conducted by the Central Government across the country has been instrumental in solving certain perennial problems. In 2016, the first phase of the new ambient air quality standards went into operation in 74 cities, where the average ratio of days with good environment stood at 74.2 percent, 13.7 percent higher than in 2013. Meanwhile, water quality monitoring showed an overall improvement, with a 17.9-percent increase of Grade III or better surface water compared with 2010. The water quality of the main streams of major rivers and lakes has also greatly improved.
The concept of green development has produced good results. In 2016, China slashed 65 million tons of production capacity for iron and steel, and 290 million metric tons of coal. The energy consumption per unit of GDP also fell 17.9 percent compared to the 2012 level. As the country's use of non-fossil energy spikes, the proportion of coal consumption steadily falls. China now leads the world in its installed capacity for generating hydropower, wind electricity and solar power. It is also the biggest consumer of new energy. Meanwhile, energy conservation and environmental protection have become strategic industries that are undergoing accelerated development.
The capacity for environmental public service provision has been promoted. As of the end of 2015, the country's maturing environmental infrastructure had enabled it to process 182 million tons of sewage daily in urban areas, making it the world No. 1 in this respect. An impressive 92 percent of urban sewage was processed, and 94.1 percent of domestic garbage in urban built-up areas was under detoxification processing. In rural areas, about 72,000 villages had carried out comprehensive environmental management, and about 61,000 intensive livestock farms had installed waste treatment, disposal, and resource utilization equipment. More than 2,700 monitoring stations had been set up nationwide. Their personnel, totaling 60,000 workers, closely monitor the local ecology. As of 2016, natural conservation zones accounted for 14.83 percent of China's total land area, and the ratio of green space in urban built-up areas hit 36.4 percent.
There is now higher public ecological awareness. China constantly disseminates knowledge and information about environmental protection, including environmental quality, pollutant discharges and environmental assessment projects. The channels and scope of public participation have also expanded. As of the end of 2015, results of a survey showed that online green consumers amounted to 65 million, almost 14 times the figure four years earlier. In 2016, about 96.3 percent of survey respondents said they were aware of the ecological progress concept, 90 percent were in favor of building an ecological society, while more than 80 percent believed that this is an issue of concern to everyone.
Significance to global sustainability
Promoting ecological progress is China's inevitable choice in light of its particular situation, and also reflects the country's shared sense of responsibility for global sustainable development. With its vast area and immense population, China plays a significant part in the battle against resource overexploitation and environmental pollution.
For example, the country supports one fifth of the world's population while possessing just 7 percent of the world's arable land. It also outperforms developed countries as regards cumulative historical and per capita emissions, and falling levels of pollution. Aware of the imperative to maintain the ecological environment, China has driven this endeavor through firm resolve and perseverance and the will to contribute to ameliorating the global environmental issue.
A salient example is China's attitude and efforts toward achieving the Paris Agreement on climate change. To tackle global climate change, the Chinese Government made sustained, strenuous efforts, from negotiations through to approval, to the agreement's eventual ratification. China took the initiative by virtue of its commitment to cut its carbon emissions by 40 to 45 percent by the year 2020. The amount of ozone layer-depleting-substances China thus weeded out accounts for more than half of the total generated by all developing countries, and contributes substantially to protection of the ozone layer.
In exploring sustainability, different countries have formulated various models which give preference to different factors, such as technological innovation, the market or legal and administrative tools. The formulation of models is generally influenced by a nation's system of governance, stage of development and market environment. China's ecological progress, in line with its political, economic, social, cultural and ecological conditions, emphasizes the comprehensive application of various tools, imbuing every aspect of production and life with the concept of green development. This paradigm hoists sustainability to the level of human civilization, with the aim of achieving harmony between humankind and nature and realizing social prosperity over eons to come. It signifies China's vision of and solution for addressing the sustainable development challenge.
Building a community of shared future
Forging a civilization that embodies ecological sustainability is the joint responsibility of all human beings. Protecting the world and realizing sustainable development are therefore matters of global concern, requiring all nations to shoulder their shared responsibility. Building a sound ecological environment—or striking a balance between protection and development—is China's goal and chosen path, as it is for all nations.
The concept of promoting ecological progress has been widely commended in the international community. In the UN Environment Programme's report on China's ecological progress strategy and action of 2016, the then Executive Director Achim Steiner declared the China-proposed ecological progress a useful exploration and concrete practice in making the concept of sustainable development a reality, and providing references whereby other countries may address similar economic, environmental and social challenges. The idea of an ecological civilization sets a new goal and charts a fresh path on the course of sustainability, marking another dimension in this high endeavor.
Achieving global ecological progress requires joint actions from all nations. On the premise of forging a community of shared future for all humankind, all countries should make joint efforts to enjoy a good ecological environment. The UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development offers a key platform for bringing this idea to fruition.
The international community needs strengthened cooperation and exchange to build a new model of complementary, mutual-benefit global environmental governance system. However, taking into account the differences in national situations, development stages, cultures and politics, it is impossible for all countries to model themselves according to a single paradigm. Instead, we should, in light of their particular conditions, converge the ecological progress idea with the flows of economic, social, political and cultural development, thus forming models that fit their respective situations.