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

  by Ethan Goffman  


Key Citations





Although the Kyoto Treaty exempts China, as a developing nation, from capping greenhouse emissions, a development path absent strong environmental awareness is no longer viable. Neither China nor the planet can reproduce the twentieth century industrial route, in which development takes precedence until a certain amount of affluence is achieved. According to the Worldwatch Institute: "Global ecosystems and resources are simply not sufficient to sustain the current economies of the industrial West and at the same time bring more than 2 billion people into the global middle class through the same resource-intensive development model pioneered by North America and Europe" (Flavin & Gardner, 4). This is true not only because of global climate change, but also due to biodiversity loss and an increasing water shortage.

Beijing's energy efficient Olympic Stadium
Energy and food resources, too, are not infinite. Although past predictions of doom have proven false due to substitutability and technological advance, avoiding resource exhaustion requires forethought and care. And, at the national and subnational level, China, with its huge population and rapid industrialization, has already subjected itself to tremendous environmental stress. At least one projection shows, "that China cannot meet the targets of the current urbanization strategy while continuing current energy and resource consumption for industrialization and modernization" (Shen et al, 289).

In many ways, China has come to realize its environmental overshoot, and has taken at least some steps toward a new path to sustainability. And it seems fruitless to replicate the mistakes of the past when better practices have already been developed. Flavin and Gardner explain that "the idea of 'leapfrogging' western countries appears far more practical than it did a few years ago. China, for example, has become the world leader in producing essential new technologies-super-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs as well as solar water heaters, which have been installed on 35 million buildings" (21).

The efforts so far are piecemeal. Yet a new awareness seems to have arrived in China, exemplified by Deputy Minister of the Environment Pan Yue, who has given unprecedented, candid interviews with Western news sources (Lorenz). How this plays itself out in the wider Chinese government, what new environmental policies are passed, and how they are implemented, will determine whether China can indeed move onto a new sustainability path. The 2008 Olympics in Beijing will be one test case as to how much China can transform itself and display a new, environmentally friendly Beijing before the eyes of the world. The increase in respiratory illness due to pollution is a major concern for athletes attending these games. So China will do everything possible to curtail pollution, to make these Olympics as green as possible. For instance, the government will shut down coal-burning factories and greatly curtail traffic before the games (ABC).

Yet critics believe that such reforms are superficial. Recent problems with contaminated exports of pet food, toothpaste, fish and other goods continue a pattern of lack of health and safety standards and cover-up by the Chinese government (Barboza). Further evidence that China still lacks the transparency needed for an aggressive environmental policy comes in its recent request that the World Bank censor a report that pollution kills 750,000 Chinese each year (McGregorin). Perhaps this is merely a diversion on the circuitous route to a deeper transformation? Such a transformation is crucial to China's future, to fulfilling its desire to become a truly sustainable society and a global leader.

© 2007, ProQuest LLC. All rights reserved.

List of Visuals


  1. ABC News. April 4, 2007. With the Olympics looming, China goes green. downloaded July 6, 2007

  2. Agence France-Presse. November 10, 2004. China's new fuel-economy standards to challenge automakers. Industry Week. downloaded July 30, 2007

  3. Bai, X. & Shi, P. September 2006. Pollution control in China's Hua River basin: what lessons for sustainability. HighBeam Encyclopedia.

  4. Barboza, D. Food-safety crackdown in China. New York Times.
    downloaded July 25, 2007

  5. Benbo, Z. March 28, 2002. Ageing population requires new action. China Population Information and Research Center.

  6. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). May 2007. China warns of population growth.

  7. Cann, C.W., Cann, M.C., & Gao Shangquan. 2005. China's road to sustainable development: An overview. China's Environment and the Challenge of Sustainable Development. New York, M.E. Sharpe. pp. 3-34.

  8. Central Intelligence Agency. The World Factbook: China.

  9. China to keep population below 1.37b. January 7, 2006. China Population Information and Research Center.

  10. Creedy, D., Lijie, W., Xinquan, Z., Haibin, L., Campbell, G. 2006. Transforming China's coal mines: A case history of the Shuangliu Mine. Natural Resources Forum 30, pp 15-26.

  11. Ding, Q.J., Hesketh, T. May 2006. Family size, fertility preferences, and sex ratio in China in the era of the one child family policy: results from national family planning and reproductive health survey. BMJ 333: 371-373

  12. Economy, E. 2005. Environmental Enforcement in China, China's Environment and the Challenge of Sustainable Development. New York, M.E. Sharpe. pp. 102-120.

  13. Encyclopedia of Public Health. Ecological footprint. downloaded July 27, 2007

  14. Esty, D.C., Levy, M., Srebotnjak, T., & de Sherbinin, A. 2005. 2005 Environmental Sustainability Index: Benchmarking National Environmental Stewardship. New Haven: Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy.

  15. Ferris, R.J. Jr. & Zhang, H. 2005. Environmental law in the people's republic of china: An overview describing challenges and providing insights for good governance. China's Environment and the Challenge of Sustainable Development. New York, M.E. Sharpe. pp. 66-101.

  16. Flavin, C. & Gardner, G. 2006. China, India, and the new world order. State of the World 2006: Special Focus: China and India. Washington: Worldwatch Institute. Pp 3-23.

  17. Half of China's people will live in cities in less than a decade. June 28, 2007. Times of India.

  18. Hemminki, E., Wu, Z., Cao, G., & Viisainen, K. 2005. Illegal births and legal abortions - the case of China. Reproductive Health 2 (5).

  19. Interfax-China. March 7, 2007. China to ban construction of coal-fire power plants below 300,000 kilowatts - NDRC.

  20. Interfax-China. November 22 2006. China and Germany top the world in renewable energy investment.

  21. Interfax-China. June 5, 2007. Interview: Former World Bank energy specialist on China's renewable energy development.

  22. Kim, J.S. February 2, 2007. Transboundary Air Pollution-Will China Choke On Its Success? China Environment Forum.

  23. Li, L. February 6, 2007. Beijing Gives Priority to Public Transportation. Worldwatch Institute.

  24. Li, Z. June 16, 2006. Chinese told to bring back the bike lane. China Digital Times.

  25. Lorenz, A. March 7, 2005. Interview with China's deputy minister of the environment. Spiegel Online International.,1518,345694,00.html

  26. McGregorin, R. July 3, 2007. Beijing censored pollution report. Financial Times. downloaded July 13, 2007

  27. Millison, D. 2005. A snapshot of china's hazardous waste management and cleaner production programs. China's Environment and the Challenge of Sustainable Development. New York, M.E. Sharpe. pp. 201-232.

  28. Ecological footprint (latest available) by country. downloaded July 27, 2007

  29. Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. China now no. 1 in CO2 emissions; USA in second position.
    downloaded August 8, 2007

  30. Parry W.H. & Anderson J.W. 2006. Petroleum: Energy independence is unrealistic. In The RFF Reader in W. Oates (Ed.), Environmental and Resource Policy. Washington, DC: Resources for the Future. pp. 175-180.

  31. Peoples Daily Online. October 22, 2002. China outlines future plans for expansion of road network.

  32. Poon, J. , Casas, I., & He, C. 2006. The impact of energy, transport, and trade on air pollution in china. Eurasian Geography and Economics, 47, No. x, pp. 1-17.

  33. Shen, L., Cheng, S., Gunson, A.J., & Wan, H. 2005. Urbanization, sustainability and the utilization of energy and mineral resources in China. Cities, Vol. 22, No. 4, p. 287-302

  34. Song, Y., Ding, C., & Knaap, G. 2007. Envisioning Beijing 2020 through sketches of urban scenarios. Habitat International. In Press.

  35. Tao, W. & Wei, W. 2005. Sandy Desertification in Northern China. China's Environment and the Challenge of Sustainable Development. New York, M.E. Sharpe. pp. 233-247.

  36. Turner, J.L. & Zhi, L. 2006. Building a green civil society in china. State of the World 2006: Special Focus: China and India. Washington: Worldwatch Institute. pp 3-23.

  37. Wang, F. & Li, H. 2005. Environmental implications of china's energy demands: An overview. China's Environment and the Challenge of Sustainable Development. New York: M.E. Sharpe. pp. 180-200.

  38. Wong, K. November 2005. Greening of the Chinese mind: Environmentalism with Chinese characteristics. Asia-Pacific Review, 12 (2) pp. 39-57.

  39. The World Bank & The State Environmental Protection Administration, P. R. China. February 2007. Cost of Pollution in China: Economic Estimates of Physical Damages. Draft. Washington, DC.

  40. World Wildlife Fund. 2005. Asia-Pacific 2005: The Ecological Footprint and Natural Wealth. downloaded July 27, 2007

  41. Zhu, D., Levine, M., Dai, Y., Yu, C., Guo, Y., Sinton, J.E., Lewis, J.I., & Zhu, Y. 2003. China's sustainable energy future: Scenarios of energy and carbon emissions. Energy Research institute of the National Development and Reform Commission, People's Republic of China.

  42. Zusman, E. & Turner, J.L. 2005. Beyond the bureaucracy: Changing China's policymaking environment. China's Environment and the Challenge of Sustainable Development. New York, M.E. Sharpe. pp. 121-149.

  • Unless otherwise indicated, all webpages cited here have been downloaded on June 29, 2007