What does China want from Rio?

Five figures from China’s sustainable development field tell chinadialogue what they hope for from this week’s Earth Summit.

After days of fringe events, the Rio+20 talks are moving into their main phase. Nobody dares hold out too much hope for a major and binding outcome, but the summit is still under close scrutiny: global leaders gathered here could set the agenda for the next millennium.

So, what does China want from Rio? We asked some of the country’s top sustainable development figures:

Sun Zhen, climate researcher, National Development and Reform Commission

The spirit of Rio is a huge achievement in the history of human thought. In the effort to resolve the relationship between humanity and the planet, it is a great step. That spirit, and the principles established in Rio [at the 1992 Earth Summit] were extremely hard-won, and it would be wrong to change course now.

But currently different parties interpret the Rio principles in the way that suits them best, in particular the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. Environmental problems are difficult to solve outside a framework of cooperation, particularly global problems. And after 20 years, perhaps we have to admit that we are further from the cooperative spirit of sustainable development than ever.

The environmental and climate problems we face today are huge. It is not just a case of a few countries being affected. Some say our failure to work together  means we have let down small island nations. In fact, we have let down ourselves.

This summit in Rio should be seen as an opportunity to bring the response to climate change back within the framework of sustainable development, to build political trust and to promote sustainable development. A young man who leaves home cannot leave forever; he must at some point return to his roots.

Jiang Nanqing, UN Environment Programme’s China office

China is now the world’s second largest economy. It is no longer the country it was in 1992. Back then, the idea of sustainable development had just emerged and wasn’t fully understood; now it is frequently discussed.

China stands at the start of its 12th Five Year Plan, and we can see the idea of green development embodied in economic planning. China has made great efforts in this direction in recent years, and Rio+20 provides the chance to demonstrate that. In Rio, China should be low-key, but more importantly it should genuinely push forward, demonstrate and act.

The Chinese public doesn’t understand sustainable development as well as climate change, and more publicity and awareness-raising events are needed. Hopefully Rio can help here. And hopefully policymakers – not just environmental policymakers, but those in other fields like finance and banking too – will start taking sustainable development into account when setting strategies. Overall, the Rio meeting should have a number of positive outcomes for China.

We hope that all nations will work in good faith to promote sustainable development. Environmental degradation is worsening and there is a constant stream of new problems. Both our reality and our ideals have changed over the last 20 years, and I hope that this summit will see more substantial outcomes, and that civil society will play a greater role in the process.

Feng Yongfeng, journalist and founder of Chinese NGO Green Beagle

I have no hopes for Rio. A declaration is meaningless, nothing more than show. China’s performance and commitments are simply empty rhetoric and do nothing to help protect nature at home.

At the last international meeting like this – the climate-change talks in Durban – China’s environmental organisations didn’t do anything of note. In any case, if they can’t do genuine environmental protection work at home, there is no point in showing off at global summits.

Yong Rong, head of policy and public affairs,
Greenpeace East Asia

We hope this global summit will boost China’s own green transformation.

At Rio+20, the leaders of the world will discuss routes to global sustainable development and the positions and attitudes of each nation are bound to be under scrutiny. The facts show that the “pollute first, clean up later” approach taken by developed nations is not an option. But many developing nations are desperately seeking rapid development in order to eliminate poverty, meaning the environmental problems caused by economic growth are ignored.

China has developed faster than any other nation over the last 20 years, both in terms of the economy and state power. But at the same time, it has sacrificed the interests of the environment and over-exploited resources.

China is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases and one of the world’s most polluted countries. If other developing nations adopt China’s methods, the world is lost and sustainable development merely a dream. Regardless of whether or not a solution for these grave problems can be found at Rio, we hope that, at least, the spirit and debate of the summit will encourage China to look again at its own mode of development and act for a genuine green transformation.

Li Lailai, senior researcher, Stockholm Environment Institute

The chances of a global binding agreement are looking ever slimmer. But the space for two or more players to work together – bilateral or multilateral cooperation – is still there, and may in fact have grown. The potential for this kind of collaboration exists in many different fields.

Compiled by Xu Nan, managing editor at chinadialogue’s Beijing office, and Wang Haotong, an intern at chinadialogue.

Homepage image by greenpeace