What will China’s ‘eco-civilisation’ look like?

Ma Tianjie asks Marco Lambertini, director general of WWF, about the Chinese government’s environmental agenda
<p>WWF director general Marco Lambertini. Image: WWF China</p>

WWF director general Marco Lambertini. Image: WWF China

On a particularly hazy winter day in Beijing, chinadialogue had the opportunity to have a one-on-one conversation with Marco Lambertini, the director general of WWF International, a group whose conservation efforts in China date back to the 1980s. Lambertini took time out of attending the annual CCICED conference (China Council for International Cooperation), which advises the Chinese government on environmental and development challenges and was this year attended by Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli.

chinadialogue (CD): What’s your take-away from this year’s CCICED?

Marco Lambertini (ML): I went away impressed with a few things. The most striking dimension was the openness with which the Chinese government is acknowledging and discussing issues and solutions. We were touching on very difficult issues, such as governance transformation, rule of law and ‘greening’ financial flows [the financing of environmental policies]. But you could clearly sense the political determination of the government.

Another interesting observation I had is that we are no longer in a phase where the Chinese government is desperate to learn from the West. We are in a phase where Chinese society has learned a lot, and now has plenty of ideas to share with the West. Maybe it’s time to extend the participation in the CCICED to other southern developing economies. I think it would be exciting to have a smaller proportion of developed economies, and new participation from emerging economies. China, Brazil, Indonesia and India have much more to share than before. 

CD: The Chinese central government recently unveiled its plan to achieve “eco-civilisation”. Does this mean a departure from “industrial civilisation”, represented by the Western economies?

ML: Discussions around “Eco-civilisation”, or “sustainable development”, or “green economy”, are all part of the same thinking. It’s actually everywhere, and I think China has tailored the concept to its own culture and stage of development. It’s really part of the universal discourse about how we can de-couple economic growth with environmental degradation.

We now understand that the current development model is not sustainable. In fact, it’s reaching its limits right now. Thankfully, we all know what the solutions are. So “Eco- civilisation” is a discussion about transition. It’s not about defining an ideal model but about what we can do to move away from a model that is creating so many problems today. Economic development, which is supposed to be creating higher living standards, is actually affecting living standards. Look at respiratory diseases in Beijing right now. It’s not only harming the health of people but also costing us in financial terms. The question is how fast we can make the transition.

CD: Some argue that many developed countries made that transition through de-industrialisation, transferring their manufacturing industries to developing countries

ML: I’m not sure that’s the case. We have seen Western economies making such transitions in the middle of their post-World War II boom years. It’s not about moving away from industrialisation. Can we imagine a world in the future that is not based on industrial production, with two more billion people coming? The question is how can we make industrial production sustainable, with lower footprints in all aspects, from carbon footprint to natural resource use. And there are examples that are happening now, not exactly in the scale we need of course. Look at the pulp and paper industry. Now they are using recycled paper and certified paper. These are all going to the right direction.

CD: What existing conditions does China need to achieve its goal?

ML: The problem is so acute now that people are demanding solutions, and the government is responding with strong determination. These are two major drivers for change.

Also, the development of new technologies. China as a leading emerging economy has taken the initiative to invest dramatically in innovation. Technology alone won’t save the planet but it can be a major contributor together with policy and behavioural change.

CD: Speaking of technology, China is leading the world in production of things such as solar panels but these are mainly for export. How do you reconcile that?

ML: China should look at renewables as not just a commodity to trade but also as a solution to domestic issues. The need should come from addressing the carbon footprint and the de-carbonisation of the economy as fast as possible.  Based on my conversation with government officials, it is clear that the future of energy in China has to be based on renewables.

CD: Some argue that China’s history as an agricultural civilisation with a very densely-concentrated population means conservation models that set aside large areas of wilderness will never work.

ML: China is not unique in this aspect. The whole world is totally based on a land-based economic model until quite recently in human history. You can see people with strong link to the land everywhere. Countries industrialised earlier might be more detached to the land than China, but even in rural Europe today attachment to the land is still very strong.

We have to learn to live in a ‘mosaic environment’ where agriculture exists side-by-side with wilderness. The challenge for China is of course population. Compared with the US and Russia you have that extra challenge of maintaining good space for people while leaving land for nature to produce the ecological services that we all need. You need to be even more sophisticated in the way you organise your planning. The government’s “red-lining” approach is an interesting one. It goes beyond a “wilderness” approach by looking at land from a productive perspective and a wilderness perspective, and try to harmonise that with industrial and urban use.

CD: In southern China, the conflict between humans and elephants that trespass into village land is becoming increasingly intense. How do you draw such “ecological red-lines”?

ML: Elephants are quite a special species. Co-existence in small areas with high density of people is of course a difficult challenge. But we also have good examples in Asia and Africa where elephants can be turned into a major source of benefits for communities. This is going to happen in China too. I have seen in the past 10 years more Chinese go to watch wildlife in Africa than Europeans. There will be great opportunities for eco-tourism and wildlife tourism in China. The same communities that are affected by elephants can develop livelihoods that capitalise on these species that are so exciting for so many people.

CD: China has a quickly expanding middle-class whose consumption patterns may determine the fate of many species on this planet. Again, elephants are at stake here. What should “eco-civilisation” mean to these people?

ML: Elephants are such a great example because for whatever reason they are exciting for many. And [for some] ivory is such an attractive material. It has been the target across different waves of culture in their different stages of development. In the developed world, the enthusiasm for ivory has largely faded away. It’s really due to awareness, nothing more than that. Of course we need to work on law enforcement in Africa too, but we have to work on awareness here. I’m sure many Chinese people are buying ivory because they like elephants. The fact that ivory is coming from elephants is exciting for them. A large part of the demand is paradoxically driven by a good feeling about the species. So we need to work on that. The question is pace. Because the Chinese population is huge and its middle class is going to continue to grow, the question is whether progress is fast enough to save the elephants in Africa. And It doesn’t just apply to elephants, it applies to commodities more generally like palm oil or paper. People need to be aware that the wrong consumption patterns can be disastrous.

CD: Any advice you would give to Chinese policymakers who are trying to make “eco-civilisation” a reality?

ML: A science-based approach is absolutely critical. Of course you will have to manage the trade-offs with social and political reality in a way that does not fundamentally undermine the guidance that is coming from science. We have been compromising science to politics too much. The results are not good for anybody.

The second one is to really look systematically at the issue. Red-lining in itself is a good one, but if it’s not coupled with good governance, strong enforcement and incentives for people to respect these measures, drawing a line around the place won’t save it.