The Chinese trail
Aug 23 2016 (Dawn, Pakistan) – “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come” — Victor Hugo
THE concept of balancing economic development with environmental resource conservation has been a part of global discourse for over two decades, but has remained inconclusive and vague. The year 2015, however, changed that when the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) clearly laid out globally agreed upon signposts for the future.
While much of the world is still scrambling to honour this consensus and heed the call for translating rhetoric into reality, a remarkable shift is happening in one of the most unexpected of quarters. Slowly but surely, the Chinese engine of development has been shifting gears.
Following decades of rapid development that managed to propel millions out of poverty, China is now experiencing the high and unavoidable price to be paid for ignoring environmental care. Air that you cannot breathe and water you cannot drink can quickly choke the very basis of economic progress. Realising that the existing model of ‘pollution now and solution later’ is unsustainable, not only environmentally but also financially, this engine of growth has been self-correcting its course.
It started about a decade ago when the idea of ushering in an ‘eco-civilisation’ was first discussed at the 17th National People’s Congress. This laid the ground for an economic transformation as it led to the concept being enshrined in China’s constitution in 2012. A new force had now been unleashed.
Within China, the first to take the lead on this trail were the ecologically rich provinces of Guizhou, Yunnan and Hainan, which demonstrated varying models of green development in practical terms. Subsequently, China’s model of eco-civilisation has slowly matured and crystallised over the years.
Firstly, in addition to being social, economic and environmental in nature, its foundation also has spiritual roots. It has built upon ideas embedded deeply in Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, and is meant to rekindle the interdependent harmony between humans and nature that all of them preach.
Secondly, the concept not only integrates the remarkable progress that the world has already made on SDGs and climate negotiations, it also takes a step further by demonstrating a model for its implementation. Within this concept, environmental conservation is not just considered an ‘add on’ to development but an integral part of development that must be mainstreamed. It has been integrated as one of the five pillars of growth in the recently announced five-year development plan for 2016-2020 — through defined plans and stated targets on forestry, national parks and the reduction of water and air pollution. All these are backed by dedicated public funds for implementation over five years.
China is aiming to export this eco-philosophy to its neighbouring region. The concept is now being integrated into the ‘One Belt, One Road’ project, which is reaching out to expand the country’s influence, trade links and economic growth to over 60 countries through the creation of an economically linked belt. The underlying objective is to export not just development, but ecologically responsible development, to trusted trading partners along the centuries-old Silk Road. In this context, it can be seen as shifting the trajectory of growth in both China and the adjoining region.
Being one of the central countries of this project, Pakistan has a rare opportunity to reap the benefits of this transformation by fully aligning the large infrastructure development currently planned along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor with environmental responsibility. This will not only ensure that its own development is climate-compatible and ecologically sustainable but will also align it with a rising global phenomenon.
Thirdly, learning a central lesson from China’s own growth model, the concept of eco-civilisation endeavours to define ‘development’ not just in terms of economic growth but also in terms of poverty reduction. This has relevance for developing countries, where capitalist models of ‘trickle-down’ economics have largely failed to effectively address the plague of ever-increasing poverty.
Finally, and most importantly, the concept envisions altering the course of global growth and influencing an entire society to think differently along a shifting paradigm — from fossil fuels to renewables, from economic capital to natural capital, from resource plunder to sustainable use, and from carbon-intensive to carbon-sensitive development.
In many ways, the future envisioned for an ‘eco-civilisation’ seems to be adequately developed and in place to align China with this shifting reality and shape a future where economic growth is balanced with environmental care. Such a prospect can be termed as the dawn of a new eco-civilisation.
The writer is a former Pakistan minister of state for environment, a global vice president of IUCN and a member of a Chinese government think tank on environment.
This story was originally published by Dawn, Pakistan