China’s Complicated Relationship With Mother Nature

 
 
Bill Kirby discusses how a historic international accord on reducing environmental emissions might signal a greener future for the world's most populous nation.
 
 
by Christian Camerota

Despite its name, the Great Wall of China began as a series of smaller, isolated defensive fortifications. Those structures grew and were later unified into the imposing structure that exists today.

The Great Wall is a great metaphor for the Chinese economy. By empowering regional governments to pursue economic development, and rewarding officials on that basis, the country as a whole has been transformed into an entrepreneurial and industrial powerhouse. Case in point: China's economy enjoyed a sustained growth rate of 10 percent between 1979 and 2010, and the International Monetary Fund projects that it will overtake the United States as the world's largest economy by the end of 2014. But as the Great Wall exemplifies the great feats of Chinese unity, so too does it reflect a tradition of environmental subjugation for national gain.

Harvard Business School professor William C. Kirby has long been following and chronicling the rising superpower's complicated relationship with Mother Nature. His new case study, China's Environmental Challenge, tells of a great nation at a critical crossroad: moving toward leading the world's markets but already number one in pollution by a wide margin. Between 70 and 90 percent of the country's flora, for example, was endangered by 2008, and by 2013, around 80 percent of its major rivers were so degraded that they no longer supported aquatic life. Commercial pursuits have exacted heavy environmental tolls, and those deferred tolls are starting to come due for a culture not used to paying them.

“Thousands of years of environmental degradation have put more strain on a finite amount of land than any other place on earth"

"China has the longest political and cultural tradition in the world of seeking to master and tame the environment for human purposes," Kirby said in a recent interview in his Morgan Hall office. "It is an infrastructure state for which there is no parallel, largely based on a belief that earth and landscape are to be transformed by roads, highways, trains, and dams. But the enormous growth of the Chinese population, the country's recent and rapid industrialization, and thousands of years of environmental degradation have put more strain on a finite amount of land than any other place on earth."

That strain is manifesting as sinking cities, shrinking reefs, wilting crops, and diminishing water supplies. To combat it, Kirby believes China must refocus on its domestic market, a market that continues to grow exponentially (its 1.36 billion citizens represent almost 20 percent of the world's population according to World Bank statistics), but which is situated on only 10 percent of the world's arable land. Balancing the relationship between domestic supply and demand, and bringing that relationship into harmony with the environment, will be crucial to the country's economic and, indeed, the world's future health.

"Pollution is tolerable when it's accompanied by economic growth, and that's why the government has been so successful at doing much of what it wants with the landscape of China to date," Kirby explained. "But I think between man-made pollution and the degradation of the natural environment, we've reached a tipping point, where the government has an obligation to reverse course."

Kirby considers it significant news that the United States and China, the world's two largest economic superpowers and carbon emitters (accounting for more than forty percent of the world's CO2 emissions), recently announced a historic accord aimed at significantly reducing their emissions over the next ten years.

"It's a major accord because for the first time in history, both countries are making commitments to limit their carbon emissions," Kirby said. "It's part of China being a responsible world leader and taking a leadership position on this issue for the first time. After all, if the US and China are not part of a solution, there will be no solution."

The shift for China won't be an easy one. It will require drastic changes in entrenched governmental, industrial, and even cultural structures and norms. Some of those changes are already well underway, such as substantial investment in alternative energy resources and production (China has a set a goal of having fifteen percent of its total energy demands met be renewables by 2020). Others—all of which Kirby believes will be keys to lasting Chinese leadership—include serious commitments to staffing and enforcing environmental oversight and regulation, and compensation and promotion structures for local and state officials that prioritize environmental improvement.

In taking care of its environment, China can also attend to the overall health of its people. The government is already trying to retire smoking as a cultural currency, driven by the fact that lung cancer increased by almost 500 percent in China between 1980 and 2010, and that air pollution is at an all-time high. A more robust healthcare system and bettered natural environment would ensure healthier citizens and longer-term prosperity since, as Kirby pointed out, a healthier country is a better-consuming country, as well.

As with the Great Wall, the process of rebuilding a great environment will begin with small changes. But Kirby believes that there is one tool at the government's disposal that it has not yet fully or effectively deployed to unite the country's greening efforts.

"The Chinese Communist Party has a powerful propaganda arm, but it has an ill-defined concept of what the China dream will be," Kirby said. "President Xi Jinping usually translates this vision as the 'great rejuvenation of the Chinese race.' It would be nice to hear that a China dream is a dream of truly blue skies, clean water, clean air, of a kind that today's Chinese great-grandparents may have known, but which subsequent generations and today's young people never have sufficiently. The question for China is: what kind of country do you hand over to your children? What kind of legacy will you leave? Nowhere in the world is the concept of family stronger than in China, and I think they will take that heavy responsibility very seriously."

About the Author

Christian Camerota is assistant director of communications at Harvard Business School.

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