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Turning Assessment into Action: Advancing China’s Urban Sustainability

What is the best way to assess sustainability at the local level? What strategies can complement policymaking in China? And how do you actually encourage cities to race to the top in sustainability performance?

Last week, a panel of experts explored these important questions at Sustainability Measurement in China: Fostering a Race to the Top, hosted by the Earth Institute’s Research Program on Sustainability and Management.


Moderated by Satyajit Bose, associate director of the research program and lecturer at Columbia’s School of Professional Studies, the panel featured Weiping Wu, professor in Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation and director of the Urban Planning Program; Jonathan Krane, founder & CEO of KraneShares, a China-focused investment fund; and Dong Guo, associate research scholar at the Earth Institute and director of the Earth Institute’s China Initiative.

After many decades of measuring its development by GDP growth alone, the Chinese government now recognizes the importance of environmental and social targets to measuring long-term sustainable development. “We all are now more ready to adopt and realize the fact that economic growth is not the true indicator of development and progress,” said Weiping Wu. For Jonathan Krane, eagerness around his own sustainability ventures in China has proven to him that the government is taking this topic seriously.

And though government organizations in China have begun coming up with their own sustainability strategies to complement local and national policymaking, the panelists agreed that sustainability indicators can be much harder to measure than economic ones.

Guo presented the research program’s recently-released China Sustainable Development Indicator System (CSDIS), an urban sustainability framework and ranking system that compares the sustainability performance of 70 Chinese cities. The system, developed jointly with the China Center for International Economic Exchanges, a leading policy think tank, is comprised of 22 indicators that cover the economic, environmental, social and institutional aspects of sustainability for cities in China.

Both Krane and Wu commented that the CSDIS system is a good incentive for Chinese cities to pursue sustainable development and encourage healthy competition. Wu stated, “This system—and this conversation—sends an important message that growth is not the only indicator of progress.” However, she also pointed out that pursuing sustainable development and environmental quality in China is much different than the path of the West. The United States, for example, was already a wealthy country when it began cleaning up its environment; China is trying to get clean as it’s still trying to get rich. For that reason, it is imperative that the indicators measuring the sustainability of Chinese cities are unique to its specific development situation.

Panelists Guo, Wu, and Krane, and moderator Bose discuss urban sustainability in China.

The CSDIS ranking system utilizes a transparent, but broad, set of indicators. Bose asked the panelists about the difficulty of measuring multiple indicators versus a single indicator, and whether one would expect to see pushback from cities. The 22 indicators in the CSDIS were narrowed down from an initial list of over 700, Guo explained, and given the complexity of sustainability, he thinks this is a good start. “We believe in simplicity, but there needs to be practicality to that simplicity,” Guo said.

Although a single indicator to measure sustainability would be ideal, Krane commented that measuring the success of cities is dependent on a broad set, because some indicators are better at measuring short-term sustainability goals, such as air emissions, while some will be more useful in measuring long-term development, such as the share of the service sector.

However, Wu pointed out that policy systems and investments have favored coastal cities over the past few decades, and we must be mindful of the type of sustainable development that cities can afford, as there is still great disparity in wealth across the country.

Looking specifically at certain indicators within the CSDIS gives us an interesting perspective on this point: coastal cities, although ranked highly overall, fare poorly in social welfare. This is primarily due to the fact that migrants to these cities, who migrate for work, lie in the periphery—both literally and figuratively—of urban accessibility. Therefore they don’t have access to economic or social growth tools. “Indicators not only help us evaluate actions towards goals, but can highlight underlying externalities related to such actions,” Wu said. In the case of migrants to coastal cities, a lower social welfare score is indicative of a greater need for proper allocation of resources and finances.

According to Guo, the China Sustainable Development Indicator System started with the idea that, “It is necessary to have indicators that can help standardize the quantitative action and implementation of sustainable development goals. And furthermore, standardize accountability.” Krane commented that the system is a valuable start to a complicated issue, and he would be interested to see a similar system for Chinese corporations. “This index could have significant implications for other emerging markets and countries,” said Wu.

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