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Business / Green China

China's chance to set a green global example

By Daniel Nyberg (China Daily) Updated: 2013-12-16 07:45

China's chance to set a green global example
[Photo / China Daily]

China conspicuously stepped up its green rhetoric in the latter half of this year. President Xi Jinping's pledge that the country would never pursue short-term economic growth at the expense of environmental degradation was perhaps the clearest example of this significant shift in tone.

World Environment Day in June coincided with official confirmation that air pollution in Beijing had reached "very unhealthy" levels. The Ministry of Environmental Protection's theme of "Breathing and working together" sat uneasily with the all-too-familiar images of a smog-induced haze hanging over the capital.

The government described the situation as grim. The ministry's annual report revealed that last year well over half the groundwater in 198 cities was "bad" or "extremely bad", more than 30 per cent of major rivers were "polluted" or "seriously polluted" and just 27 of 113 key cities had air of acceptable quality.

There remains an inescapable conviction, particularly in the West, that this has been allowed to happen and that China is now paying the toxic price for sacrificing nature on the altar of economic growth. Accordingly, many Western commentators have expressed the hope that an admission of past mistakes will signal positive political action.

Concerted and transparent efforts to solve the problem would certainly have the most far-reaching implications. China itself would be the obvious and principal beneficiary, but the enduring success of any initiative would undoubtedly influence the rest of the world - from the developing nations that increasingly follow China's lead to the established economic and industrial powerhouses that inspired the dragon's rise.

Yet in seeking to realize the dream of a "beautiful China", as first espoused at the 18th National Congress last year, policymakers and businesses alike would do well to note that it is all too easy to parade one's green credentials while failing to justify them. We know this only too well in the West, where the ever-intensifying incorporation of the environment within market capitalism has served almost exclusively to make the former a profit-generating slave to the latter.

Visit the homepages of any major organization and you are guaranteed to discover pro-environmentalism to the fore. Coal, construction, cola, corporate banking - every sector feels compelled to concede the importance of sustainability. This is a box that simply has to be ticked.

It may seem reasonable to view this as a thoroughly well-intentioned response to climate change, deforestation, declining biodiversity and similar concerns. However, when we examine the issue more closely we find mounting evidence of a fast-emerging trend for the environment to be accorded a market worth and for corporations to be seen as the central institutions through which that worth can be maintained.

In effect, both the environment and the market are now habitually treated as social goods, and it follows that the two will occasionally have competing interests. The crucial question is which is likely to benefit and which is likely to suffer when, as must inevitably be the case, compromise is required.

A recent study by Nottingham University Business School shed fresh light on this tension by investigating the sustainability practices of a number of global companies. In-depth interviews with sustainability managers and consultants revealed that many saw their roles as involving not only an allegiance to their employers and shareholders but also a concern for the environment and society.

Researchers also analyzed a variety of relevant material, including corporate sustainability reports, policy documents and statements relating to carbon emissions. As has become almost mandatory, most of these featured images of forests, oceans and landscapes, as well as employees' testimonials about the environment's significance in their personal and professional lives.

But all of this is so much eco-friendly window dressing. The study exposed the crushing extent to which social responsibility plays second fiddle to corporate pragmatism. Companies and staff members may express a keen and genuine interest in the environment, yet there remains an acute awareness of the constraints - even the futility - of challenging successful business practices liable to intensify ecological degradation. As the director of one sustainability consultancy observed: "It always comes down to the optimum point. You want them to be as sustainable as can be, but you don't want them to shut down their operation. There's no simple path through this."

Moreover, compromise was shown to be at best a temporary resolution - one subject to continued criticism, adaptation and refinement. Thus the next step often leads only to a new and "better" compromise or an outright recasting of fundamental principles. Environmentalists' allegation that bio-fuels cause deforestation and food shortages merely resulted in the promotion of second-generation bio-fuels. A company that set an "ambitious" carbon emissions reduction target of 40 per cent felt able to caution in dispiritingly short order that this would prove "difficult to deliver" because of an expansion in business.

There are occasional win-win situations. Sometimes new green products or initiatives cut costs or increase revenues, in which case the market is denied its traditional lopsided victory. Yet it is generally accepted that these scenarios should be pursued only when the benefits to the market, not the benefits to the environment, can ultimately be guaranteed. The bottom line is still the primary objective.

Encouragingly, a notion at the center of nascent debate in the West is whether the market's ever-distending reach might be countered by protection and conservation through legislation.

In New Zealand a river was recently recognized as a legal entity with the same rights and interests enjoyed by a company, while constitutional amendments in Bolivia and Ecuador have included specific rights for the environment. Regardless of the eventual outcomes, such fledgling efforts at least highlight a nascent social acknowledgment of the need for civic control over market capitalism's excesses.

The author is a professor of sustainability at Nottingham University Business School. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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