As China incorporates environmental considerations into its economic planning process, its government appears to be carefully examining the relationship between sustainability and broader development goals. China’s government has been ambitious in setting environmental targets and the importance of sustainable development is widely accepted in China. Last week, Earth Institute executive director Steven Cohen, economist Satyajit Bose, and post-doctoral research scholar Dong Guo participated in the annual Eco Forum Global conference in Guiyang, China, the country’s primary gathering to discuss the challenges of and solutions to China’s environmental problems. The conference, “Embracing a New Era of Eco-Civilization,” drew several thousand state leaders, business executives, scholars, and civil society leaders, as well as nearly 1,000 journalists from major media agencies.
Dr. Satyajit Bose, accompanied by Bin Pei from the Columbia Global Centers | East Asia, presented on payments for ecosystem services and green accounting in a number of discussions and panels, including a workshop on “eco-compensation,” jointly organized with Tsinghua University. The eco-compensation project, co-launched by Tsinghua’s China Institute for Development Planning, China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection and Eco Forum Global, seeks to introduce pricing for critical local environmental resources while simultaneously addressing the inequality among Chinese regions in terms of environmental resources and economic development. The more prosperous and urban northern and eastern regions of China see disproportionate benefits from the extraction of natural resources from the poorer southern and western regions. To tackle this issue of unbalanced economic development, this project seeks to develop a framework for an inter-regional system of payments for ecosystem services that would benefit the poorer areas of southern and western China while also reducing pressure on natural resources. In his presentation, Dr. Bose outlined the essential features of successful cases of payments for ecosystem services from the US that are applicable to the Chinese context. Other presenters highlighted cases from Costa Rica, Brazil and Pakistan, as well as early attempts at implementation in China. The Earth Institute’s Research Program on Sustainability Policy and Management joins leading researchers across China on this project. It is one of the major research topics of China’s National Development and Reform Commission, the powerful central planning agency that oversees all economic activities, and is advised by the Chinese minister of Environmental Protection, the vice minister of the Office of the Leading Group for Financial and Economic Affairs, and a leading scholar from the Chinese Academy of Engineering.
Dr. Bose also presented at a workshop on the “one belt, one road” concept, a discussion on the environmental and social return on investment for China’s New Silk Road Initiative, which aims to expand China’s trade and investment in Central Asia and to Europe. The workshop was organized by the Global Infrastructure Basel Foundation, which is developing a new voluntary standard for socially-responsible investors in the infrastructure asset class. Dr. Bose provided an overview of methods of calculating social and environmental return. He emphasized the importance of broad stakeholder participation and review for projects undertaken by the newly-launched Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and noted the deep interest among a fast-growing segment of institutional investors to participate in socially-responsible, long-term, resilient infrastructure projects. He was quoted by the Guiyang Daily, a local news media outlet, as saying: “in the infrastructure development process for the ‘one belt, one road,’ we have different stakeholders from different countries, different sectors, who may only value short-term financial gains, and not longer-term effects of the investments.” He asserts that the Asian Infrastructure bank should include social responsibility in its consideration in managing assets and making investment decisions, and that it’s very important for the long-term return for infrastructure projects.
As China advances its current phase of economic growth dubbed the “New Normal,” which comprises moderate growth with higher quality of life and sustainability, it’s clear that longer-term objectives are in mind. Growing the economy, developing sustainably, and reducing the poverty rate are all prominent and interlinked goals for the country, and it’s necessary to pay more attention to the impact of human development on the environment for China to reach its sustainable development goals.