State of the Planet

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Sustainability Measurement in China: Fostering a Race to the Top

Sustainability is now widely recognized as an essential component for development in China, with the Chinese government setting ambitious environmental and social targets. However, the sheer pace of China’s economic growth makes establishing a sustainable development strategy a difficult task, and one which requires a standardized, localized system to measure and manage sustainability in order to seriously assess progress. To meet this need, the Research Program on Sustainability Policy and Management recently released the China Sustainable Development Indicator System, a new sustainability indicator framework and annual ranking of the sustainability performance of Chinese cities.

Last month, the team held the first launch of the project in Beijing, China, with research partner China Center for International Economic Exchanges (CCIEE), the leading policy think tank in China. Over 100 representatives from government, academia, industry, and media attended the launch, with Wang Jun, member of CCIEE’s academic committee stating, “Today’s conference hopes that through our efforts, we will call on society as a whole to jointly implement sustainable development solutions.” On Tuesday, January 30th, the team will present the ranking to a U.S. audience at an event hosted at Columbia University, “Sustainability Measurement in China: Fostering a Race to the Top.”


Project lead Dong Guo speaks with Shenzhen Media on the importance of the research team’s new urban sustainability framework for Chinese cities. (c) CCIEE

Although a great variety of sustainability indicator frameworks are available for policymakers to shape their cities’ growth strategies, the China Sustainable Development Indicator System (CSDIS) was built on the principles of transparency, data integrity, and an evidence-based weighting methodology, seeking to address many of the issues present in those systems. Utilizing an integrated approach, which categorizes indicators by subject area while also considering the causal relationship among the fields, the research team designed a robust new sustainability metrics framework and indicator set that covers the economic, environmental, social and institutional aspects of sustainability for Chinese cities. The team incorporated research and comparative analyses of existing frameworks in China and internationally, developing a framework comprised of five subject areas: 1) Economic Development, 2) Social Welfare and Livelihood, 3) Environmental Resources, 4) Consumption and Emissions, and 5) Environmental Management. The CSDIS uses an innovative, scientific, and fully-transparent indicator weighting method that takes into account the volatility of data for each indicator across time and geographic location, which most urban sustainability ranking systems do not fully address.

Based on a total of 22 indicators, 70 Chinese cities were ranked on their sustainability performance from 2013 to 2016. These rankings reveal that coastal cities often rank higher in overall sustainability and are often the most economically advanced in China. Contrary to industrialized cities inland, coastal cities tend to have better environmental quality. Cities in central and western China tend to rank low on sustainability, with the exception of Wuhan, as they are not as economically advanced as coastal cities, often due to the lack of transportation and trade benefits that come from being a port city. Albeit quickly catching up on this front, these cities experience greater environmental degradation in terms of air, water, and soil, without the advantages of being on the coast. Although governments in the most polluted cities, such as Shijiazhuang, Shenyang, and Zhengzhou, have made commendable efforts in pollution abatement and environmental conservation, these efforts have not been sufficient to offset the damages imposed by rapid economic growth and urbanization.

The first published rankings of the CSDIS represent an important output of three years of collaborative work between the Research Program and CCIEE. This project recognizes the importance of advancing sustainability in China, complements decision-making in sustainability policy, and contributes to the Research Program’s broader research on sustainability metrics. Dong Guo, associate research scholar and director of the Earth Institute China Initiative commented that, “Peter Drucker, founding father of modern management, once said that there is no management without measurement. To solve and manage sustainable development, we must first have measurement tools, which is one of the reasons we designed the CSDIS.” The team sees this project as an important contribution to promoting healthy and sustainable development of the Chinese economy and hopes it will provide a unique example and model for other countries.

On Tuesday, January 30th, “Sustainability Measurement in China: Fostering a Race to the Top” will further discuss the CSDIS and will explore the value of measuring a broad but transparent set of indicators to encourage cities and provinces to begin a race to the top in sustainability performance. Satyajit Bose, lecturer and associate director of the Research Program on Sustainability Policy and Management, will moderate a panel that also explores the importance of a standardized system to assess sustainability at the local level. Panelists include Weiping Wu, professor and director of Columbia’s Urban Planning Program; Jonathan Krane, founder & CEO of KraneShares, a China-focused investment fund; and Dong Guo. The panelists will discuss how such systems can complement policymaking in China’s local administrative system, the balance between the state and the private sector, as well as sustainable development in China more broadly.

For more information and to register for the event, visit This event is free and open to the public, but RSVP is required. The panel will be followed by a reception with wine, beer and hors d’oeuvres.

For more information on the CSDIS, visit

For more information on the Research Program on Sustainability Policy and Management, visit

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