In recent years, images of China often depict smog-filled cities and coal-fired power plants. It is true that a breakneck speed of development over more than three decades has led to a series of environmental challenges, with cities such as Beijing often subjected to pollution levels multiples higher than the recommended limit. Other environmental issues, including the effects of climate change, water pollution, high use of natural resources and the pollution of arable land, also pose challenges for the world’s most populous nation.
In previous decades, the environment had been seen to take a back seat in Chinese policy-making in favour of the very real challenge of sustaining economic growth and raising living standards. However, the severe impact of air pollution on health and a global drive to fight climate change has seen China emerge as an international leader in the environmental space. Moreover, as others are progressively backing away from their leadership position, China has shown an increasing willingness to collaborate with the rest of the world in order to achieve climate goals.
The World Economic Forum is now working with the Chinese government on these issues. At Davos this year, the Forum signed an MOU with the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development (CCICED) an organization which gives policy recommendations to China’s State Council. The collaboration will explore how circular and sharing economy models can create a more resource-efficient society in China, also focusing on other areas including oceans, the potential of new technologies for the environment, and climate change. (The "circular economy" refers to a shift from the linear model of making products then throwing them away, so that everything is designed to be recycled or re-used.)
As is the nature of the Chinese system, direction and policy action starts at the top. At the 2017 Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, president Xi Jinping signaled that China would stick with the multilateral process and others should also, saying “The Paris Agreement is a hard-won achievement... All signatories should stick to it instead of walking away from it, as this is a responsibility we must assume for future generations”. As the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gasses and the world’s second largest economy China’s newly accepted leadership sends a strong signal to the global community.
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