As President Hu Jintao stated on last Saturday at the NPC, a crisis also means an opportunity. This is very true especially when we talk about the financial and ecological crises together. The financial crisis is generating serious problems today, but these problems dwarf the catastrophe we will face if we do not address the over consumption of natural resources by the rich people on the planet. If everyone were to live like an American in terms of resource consumption, we would need more than five planets.
Scientists agree that a 21st century economy must be extremely resource efficient, still most countries have responded to the current financial crisis by suggesting increased investments in old industries and infrastructure. Even if jobs are created in the short term, unabated investment of this kind will accelerate the destruction of the planet, and generate conflicts between countries as the hunt for scarce natural resources intensifies. China must avoid a solution to one crisis that creates an even bigger problem. Any measure to deal with the financial crisis should be designed to both help people out of poverty, and at the same time help the rich part of the population shift to a resource-efficient lifestyle.
While most countries ignore poverty and only want to increase consumption, China must deal with both and do this in a way that ensures long-term sustainability. This task is difficult, but it also gives China a unique opportunity to become a key provider of truly sustainable solutions, not only for the domestic market but also for the rest of the world.
Construction in China offers one fantastic opportunity. There are cost-efficient solutions available today that would allow China to build resource-efficient buildings that are net producers of energy. Instead of the present situation where buildings use 40 percent of virgin materials and energy along with 16 percent of the annually available fresh water, China could take the lead in developing a new generation of buildings.
Another example of the new kind of infrastructure needed is "digital bridges and roads", often called virtual meeting rooms and tele-working. These are solutions that allow people to meet without having to physically travel. More than 4 million people fly between Beijing and Shanghai every year, and the number of people who commute by car to work is increasing fast. In this situation, China, and the rest of the world, has much to gain from a 21st century infrastructure that could help reduce unnecessary physical transport with cars and planes.
The world needs China as a key exporter of affordable sustainable solutions. The good news is that China is already on the way in many areas, for example by exporting energy-efficient light bulbs. About 80 percent of these energy efficient light bulbs come from China and in Europe alone 23 million tons of CO2 could be saved if more energy-efficient light bulbs were used.
Leading renewable energy companies are already attracted to the city of Baoding and want to help it become the Silicon Valley of renewable energy production. Everyday Baoding is helping the world by exporting wind and solar solutions, but much more could be done. It is also crucial to support innovative companies that so far have not been discussed as important solution providers. China Mobile is one example; a company which is world leading when it comes to resource efficient IT solutions, ranging from smart transportation solutions to e-paper, solutions which in the future should be exported.
WWF has just started a new global initiative which focuses on China as an opportunity for global sustainability. Through this initiative we will work with different stakeholders in China and urge foreign governments and companies to support China's efforts to shift towards resource-efficient development. We want to support both the development of more sustainable domestic solutions, but also an accelerated export of sustainable goods and services from China to the world.
Accelerating the transition towards a resource efficient, low carbon economy could make China and the companies in China rich while saving the planet. Over the next 30 years, more than 200 trillion dollars will be invested in urban areas around the world to provide basic services like transport, communication, light and heat. Already today, low carbon and environmental goods and services sector is worth around $4 trillion, according to a recently released report commissioned by the UK Government.
A strong focus on 21st century smart solutions in China would trigger increased domestic consumption that would not only be in coherence with the goals of a harmonious society and turn China into an innovation centre for the 21st century, but also enable the export of solutions that could help the world move toward a global circular economy.
The author is a WWF Global Policy Adviser.
(China Daily 03/10/2009 page10)