Discovery Guides Areas


China and the Path to Environmental Sustainability
(Released August 2007)

  by Ethan Goffman  


Key Citations




Bus Rapid Transit: Originally developed in Brazil, a high speed bus with a dedicated lane intended to give many of the benefits of a light rail system without the cost.

cleaner production: A strategy that reduces both energy consumption and hazardous wastes. According to Environment Canada, "cleaner production includes conserving raw materials and energy, eliminating toxic raw materials, and reducing the quantity and toxicity of all emissions and wastes" (

end-of-pipe approaches: Approaches to the environment that emphasize clean-up after pollution has already been emitted, rather than cutting down on the amount of pollutants emitted in the first place.

environmental economics: The sudy of how economic activity impacts the environment, and of how economic mechanisms can be created that minimize harm to the environment while allowing maximum economic benefit.

environmental overshoot: From a planetary perspective, the condition of putting more stress on our ecosystems than they are able to repair or recover from. Resource use is one factor subject to overshoot, although substitutability allows humans to recover from this state. Overshoot can also remain hidden until a resource runs out or an ecosystem suffers sudden decline, at which time the consequences become suddenly obvious.

global warming emissions / greenhouse gasses: Gases released, either naturally or from anthropogenic sources, into the earth's atmosphere, where they contribute to the greenhouse effect. That is, they trap solar radiation that has penetrated the atmosphere and reflected back off the earth. Examples include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and water vapor.

green buildings: Structures that harm the environment as little as possible, using such strategies as passive solar energy, water recycling, local and natural construction materials, and renewable energy. The United States Green Building Council (USGBC) explains green building design and construction as intended "to significantly reduce or eliminate the negative impact of buildings on the environment and on the building occupants" (

gross domestic product (GDP): The total measure of goods and services produced by a nation (within its own boundaries).

Kyoto Treaty: An agreement among the industrialized nations of the world to reduce emissions of six greenhouse gases through 2012. More than 170 nations initially signed the treaty, including the U.S., the European Union, Canada, and Japan. Although the U.S. Congress refused to ratify the Kyoto Treaty, it came into effect when Russia approved it in 2005.

nongovernmental organization (NGO): A nonprofit or voluntary group that operates independent of government, often working on international development issues.

peak oil: The point at which half of global oil reserves have been used, at which point scarcity will gradually increase and prices rise. When this will happen is not known. In 1956 geologist M. King Hubbert came up with the principle of peak oil, and predicted, accurately, that the United States would hit peak oil in the 1970s.

smart growth: Development in or near cities intended to lessen or reverse suburban sprawl, decrease the use of automobiles, and shorten daily travel. Smart Growth occurs in or near existing transportation centers, such as subway stations. It clusters together residential, shopping, and work areas and encourages walking and public transportation.

State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA): China's main environmental agency, roughly equivalent to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the United States. Critics claim that SEPA is undercut by other, more powerful agencies of the Chinese government, and that it lacks enforcement power at the local level.

substitutability: The ability of one resource to replace another, as used by humans. For instance, as a source of protein fish may substitute for steak, and tofu may substitute for fish. Given infinite substitutability, many of the problems of sustainability would be solved. Some resources, such as water, have no substitute, however, while the transition from one resource to another can be expensive and even dangerous if not planned for.

sustainability: A concept defined by the seminal Brundtland Declaration of 1987:"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Implicit here is the idea that the natural environment faces stress and overexploitation and will not be able to indefinitely meet escalating human demands.