Turning Challenges into Opportunities to Ensure Sustainable Development

From: English Edition of Qiushi Journal Updated: 2011-09-20 13:14
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 The effects of the global financial crisis are still being felt, the foundation for a global economic recovery is still not solid and global problems such as resource and environmental issues and climate change are becoming worse, a situation presenting unprecedented challenges to the sustainable development of human society. China is a large, very open developing country that is increasingly integrated into the global economy, so the country’s economic and social development and its resource and environmental issues are being profoundly affected by the situation, and the external pressure working against sustainable development is enormous. At the same time, in spite of enormous efforts to protect China’s environment in recent years, many new facets of the country’s problems with the ecological environment have been emerging and the internal pressure working against sustainable development has not been fundamentally resolved. In the face of a complex situation consisting of both internal and external pressures, we must adopt scientific countermeasures and turn the many challenges into opportunities to ensure sustainable development.

 1. We must fully understand the profound impact of the global financial crisis on economic development to make external pressure drive internal development.

 The global financial crisis is presenting monumental challenges to China’s export-oriented economic development model. However, the crisis also contains the seeds of development opportunities. In particular, the crisis presents a rare opportunity to adjust the economic structure, expand domestic demand and develop strategically important emerging industries.

 First, the global financial crisis is presenting China with the opportunity to adjust the economic and industrial structures and accelerate transformation of its pattern of development. China’s rapid growth over the last nearly 30 years has relied to a certain extent on resource consumption and the export of primary products as well as on a highly energy-intensive industrial structure dominated by heavy chemical industry. China began working to transform the pattern of economic growth during the Ninth Five-Year Plan period (1996-2000). The Tenth Five-Year Plan (2001-2005) identified strategically important adjustments to be made in the economic structure. At the Seventeenth National Party Congress it was declared that the key to achieving the goals for economic development is to make substantial progress in accelerating transformation of the economic development pattern and improving the socialist market economic system. Although we have had some success in carrying out structural adjustment in recent years, the quantity-oriented pattern of growth basically remains unchanged. The global financial crisis has driven Chinese enterprises to make technological innovations. The impact of the crisis and the growing environmental awareness of customers have brought about great changes in the market environment for enterprises and created unprecedented pressure for enterprises, particularly foreign trade enterprises. The facts show that enterprises that depend on a higher level of technology are more resistant to the financial crisis and have a significant market advantage. Therefore, we must constantly encourage Chinese enterprises to be more innovative, accelerate efforts to apply research results and upgrade products and industrial processes at a faster pace.

 December 11, 2009, residents of Taizhou, Jiangsu Province learn how a home-use water-saving faucet works at a competition for ideas on how people can lower their “carbon footprint.” China has launched an energy conservation campaign in recent years in key areas such as industry, transportation and construction to eliminate energy-intensive, highly-polluting backward production capacity and develop a circular economy. Thanks to the powerful measures designed to conserve energy and reduce emissions, China has become the hardest working country in the world in terms of energy conservation and emission reduction. / Supplied by Xinhua 

 Second, the new technological revolution triggered by the global financial crisis provides China with the opportunity to develop strategically important emerging industries. Economic crises often carry the seeds of new technological revolutions. Countries around the world are accelerating the new energy revolution, led by green and low-carbon technology. Countries are planning to rely on major technological breakthroughs and innovation to restore balance to and improve the quality of their economies. We must make full use of the new opportunities presented by the current technological revolution to accelerate technological transformation in the traditional industries and upgrade the overall technology in other industries. We must create new areas of economic growth and inject fresh vitality into sustainable development by vigorously nourishing and working to develop strategically important emerging industries such as new energy sources, new materials, biotechnology, electric vehicles, energy conservation and environmental protection, and advanced manufacturing technologies. If China can gain an advantage over other countries in technological innovation and the initiative in developing strategically important emerging industries thus taking the lead in global development, we will be able not only to effectively expand the market for products with Chinese intellectual property rights, but also to improve the efficiency and structure of domestic energy consumption and strengthen the country’s ability to ensure sustainable development.

 2. We must make good use of the achievements in economic development and current favorable conditions to truly resolve resource and environmental issues threatening sustainable development.

 China’s GDP exceeded 30 trillion yuan in 2008, making China’s economy third largest in the world. Individual incomes in China have increased by leaps and bounds, people’s living standards have significantly improved and the financial strength of the country has grown considerably over the past 30 years. At the same time, however, there is still enormous pressure on the environment and resource and environmental issues have become a bottleneck in efforts to ensure sustainable economic and social development.

 Actually, the development of the People’s Republic of China over the past 60 years is equivalent to the course that Western countries have traversed over the last 200 years or even more, so it’s not surprising that problems and challenges are emerging in China in quick succession. We must prepare to work even harder than developed countries to resolve these problems as well as learn to create the necessary conditions and seize opportunities. These are all problems that are emerging in the course of development, and they will be resolved in the future course of development. Looking at the current situation, we can see that the conditions and opportunities for solving these problems are now gradually maturing.

 First, it is not just the government that is concerned about environmental issues; many ordinary people are also very concerned. The public’s increasing call for resource conservation and environmental protection has provided us with the internal drive and a good public opinion environment for addressing these issues. 

 Second, China has the financial resources necessary to tackle these problems. Chinese government revenue exceeded 6.1 trillion yuan in 2008. In the early 1980s, annual national expenditures for environmental improvement totaled 2.5 billion to 3 billion yuan, accounting for only 0.51% of GDP. National expenditures for environmental protection and pollution control reached 449.03 billion yuan in 2008, accounting for 1.49% of GDP. 

 Third, the government has instituted a series of policy measures for adjusting the industrial and economic structures, accelerating transformation of the development pattern and intensifying energy conservation and emission reduction efforts. The gradual implementation of these policy measures will not only improve the quality and efficiency of China’s economic performance, but also provide a positive policy environment for improving the efficiency of resource consumption and solving environmental problems. 

 Fourth, scientific and technological advances provide us with the means to solve these problems. In the Eleventh Five-Year Plan period (2006-2010), national programs for scientific and technological development have made unprecedented efforts to support new energy development and environmental protection. Local government and corporate investment in science and technology for environmental protection has also been growing during the period.

 3. We must scientifically respond to global climate change and accurately identify opportunities for the development of a low-carbon world economy. 

 China is one of the countries most susceptible to the adverse effects of climate change, and global climate change poses a real threat to China’s natural ecological system and economic and social development. Studies show that unless appropriate measures are taken, by 2030 China’s agricultural production capacity will fall 5%-10%, which will seriously affect food security. Furthermore, major projects such as the Three Gorges Project, the Qinghai-Tibet Railway and the South-to-North Water Diversion Project all could be threatened by climate change. 

 Formation of an international institutional framework and system of rules for responding to climate change is proceeding at a faster pace and moving toward “quantitative targets, detailed rules and rigid constraints.” The setting of long-term, quantitative global targets for emissions reduction will pose great challenges for China’s medium- and long-term development and for sustainable development. 

 China is currently in a stage of rapid industrialization and urbanization, meaning that energy and resource consumption will continue to grow for a long time to come. In addition, China’s coal-intensive energy structure, energy-intensive industrial structure and its emerging role as “the world’s factory” make it even more difficult to reduce carbon-based emissions. Furthermore, many developed countries are engaging in trade protectionism in the name of addressing climate change and working to restrict the export of Chinese products by adding requirements for energy efficiency and environmental protection during bilateral negotiations on international trade. This will also put tremendous pressure on China’s export-oriented economic development model. 

 The focus of internal policies and diplomacy related to global climate change appears to be energy and environmental issues, but in reality it is a development issue. Only sustainable development can provide the ultimate solution to the issue of climate change. In response to global climate change, China has declared its intentions to reduce carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP 40%-45%, increase the proportion of non-fossil fuels as primary energy source to 15%, increase the forested area by 40 million hectares and increase the total volume of forest stock by 1.3 billion m3 between 2005 and 2020. China has voluntarily set these action targets in line with conditions in the country and the need to ensure sustainable development. Moreover, these targets will also contribute tremendously to global efforts to counter climate change. We will need to increase our energy conservation and emissions reduction efforts, understand the development trends towards a low-carbon world economy and take advantage of the historic opportunities for low carbon development in order to reach these targets.

 Following the outbreak of the global financial crisis, developed countries turned to the development of a low-carbon economy as the main way to stimulate economic recovery, respond to climate change and ensure a continued competitive edge, quietly launching a global competition in science and technology focusing on low-carbon technologies. China has the potential to develop a low carbon economy. (1) Because China has fairly poor energy efficiency, there is a great deal of room to raise energy efficiency and improve energy conservation. China’s energy efficiency is about 33%, about 10 percentage points lower than developed countries. (2) China’s current energy structure relies heavily on coal, but the country has abundant reserves of hydraulic power, biomass, wind power, solar power and other renewable energy sources that are not being adequately exploited and used, so the potential for optimizing the energy structure is great. (3) China’s industrial structure is dominated by energy-intensive and highly polluting heavy industry, so the potential for industrial restructuring is considerable. (4) The total forested area of China is small, but there is great potential for forest development which will act as a large sink for carbon dioxide. (5) The potential for scientific and technological support for emissions reduction and new energy development will increase as China’s overall spending on science and technology grows and its ability to make independent innovations increases. (6) Household energy consumption is excessive, so the potential for improving the energy consumption pattern is great. We must work hard to build a system of low-carbon technologies in line with conditions in the country, define key areas for each level in planning the development of low-carbon technologies, strive for a favorable position in the new round of economic competition and promote sustainable economic and social development. 

(From Qiushi in Chinese, No. 3, 2010)

Note: Author: Executive Vice President and First Secretary of the Secretariat of the Chinese Association of Science and Technology

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