State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Advancing Sustainable Development in China

By Ma Lei

In Beijing, China, last month, the Research Program on Sustainability Policy and Management released its second annual report of the China Sustainable Development Indicator System (CSDIS), a sustainability indicator framework and annual ranking of the sustainability performance of Chinese cities and provinces, at an event attended by over one hundred people from academia, industry, government and the media.

“Evaluation Report on the Sustainable Development of China (2018),” a report on the project, was published as a prestigious “blue book” in China last month.

Hosted by the China Center for International Economic Exchanges (CCIEE), the program’s research partner and leading policy think tank in China, the event celebrated the second launch of the CSDIS as well as the publication of a Chinese “blue book” on the project, a prestigious academic publication in China. The publication, titled “Evaluation Report on the Sustainable Development of China (2018),” was sponsored by AliResearch, the research arm of the Alibaba Group.

Cai Jijun, the deputy chief editor of the Social Sciences Academics Press of China, the publisher of the blue book, opened the event by sharing the strict criteria that went into selecting this particular report for blue book publication, as it was selected as part of the national 13th Five-Year Key Publishing Project. Blue books provide scientific basis for macro-level decision-making and serve national strategic needs, and Cai shared how sustainable development is inevitably important for China’s current stage of development.

Moderated by Zhang Dawei, CCIEE’s vice chairman and secretary-general, the audience then heard from Wang Jun, a member of CCIEE’s academic committee, and Satyajit Bose, associate director of the research program and associate professor of practice at Columbia’s School of Professional Studies. Speaking on the CSDIS project, Wang was confident that through our joint efforts we can continue to improve different sectors’ understanding of sustainable development and encourage implementation of its solutions. Satyajit Bose used an ancient Chinese proverb to convey that there are two sides of everything and that for China to measure its healthy development it cannot solely focus on higher GDP; sustainability is a key factor, and he hopes this project continues to contribute to that each year.

Hao Jianbin, secretary-general of the AliResearch Academic Committee, spoke on some of the progress that China has been making, including how Alibaba is implementing sustainable strategies in their own day-to-day business operations. With AliResearch’s new relationship with CCIEE and the research program, Hao sees Alibaba now having even more opportunities in absorbing and implementing practical sustainability strategies.

In the second part of the event, Zhang Huanbo, a researcher from CCIEE, and Guo Dong, associate director of the Research Program on Sustainability Policy and Management, introduced this year’s research results of the China Sustainable Development Indicator System.

Dong Guo introduces this year’s CSDIS.

The biggest change from last year’s system is that 30 more cities were added to this year’s analysis, up to 100 from 70. Interestingly, one of the newly added cities, Zhuhai, ranked number one among all 100 cities in overall sustainable development, outperforming economic powerhouses like Beijing and Shenzhen. Zhuhai showed a true balance of performance in each of the five categories the system scores and ranks: economic development, social welfare and livelihood, environmental resources, consumption and emissions, and environmental management, earning it the top spot.

The event ended with a panel discussion on leveraging information to implement sustainable development strategies. Moderated by Satyajit Bose, the panel featured Yang Jun, strategy director of the Alibaba Cloud Research; LV Haiqi, deputy director of the International Statistical Information Center, National Bureau of Statistics of China; Zhang Jianzhi, researcher from the Foreign Economic Cooperation Office; and Ma Lei, the China program officer of the Research Program on Sustainability Policy and Management.

Satyajit Bose moderates a panel featuring YANG Jun, LV Haiqi, ZHANG Jianzhi, MA Lei.

As a “big data” expert, Yang thinks that big data is crucial in both cost savings and quality assurance when implementing sustainability strategies such as transportation data. By collecting a city’s transportation and traffic data in real time and consistently, for example, a city could easily forecast the traffic times each day and inform citizens to choose more suitable transportation plans of the day.

Zhang has extensive experience in implementing pollution control through international cooperation, as well as using various mechanisms to get diverse actors to comply with environmental treaties. Besides government-only efforts, she sees that the awareness of public and private sectors have also largely improved. She commented that the CSDIS is of great help for Chinese cities to understand sustainable development and encourage healthy competition for cities across the globe.

In response to the question, “What are some of the pitfalls that we should be concerned about in trying to measure something that is so multi-dimensional as sustainable development,” LV stated that although GDP is an important indicator and it will always play an unsubstituted role in measuring development, sustainable development is far more comprehensive. LV is aware of the fact that the CSDIS program has faced the hardship of ensuring data quality, but thinks this problem is being solved each year under China’s National Statistical Bureau’s yearly adjusted management standards.

Ma Lei shared her understanding of ways in which younger generations in both the US and China approach sustainable development. In China, for example, 37 percent of millennials are willing to spend more money to support environmentally responsible brands; in the US, about 87 percent of millennials would be more loyal to a company that helps them contribute to social and environmental issues. Ma, who always has reusable bags and utensils in her purse to substitute the use of plastics, has confidence in her generation’s growing behavioral change toward ethical and sustainable consumption.

Getting back to the CSDIS, the panelists agreed that “high-quality development” is a term often referred to and heard in today’s China, but its concept is actually similar to that of sustainable development. Essentially, China can’t just pursue high-speed economic development without fully considering people’s livelihood and environmental sustainability. These considerations are reflected in the five major categories of the China Sustainable Development Indicator System, which shall be updated and improved annually.



Ma Lei is China program officer for the Research Program on Sustainability Policy and Management.

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