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Sustainability with Chinese Characteristics

To its credit, China is focusing on sustainable development at a point when its per capita output is barely more than one-third the level in the so-called advanced economies. A relatively poor country has made a conscious choice to shift its focus from the quantity of economic growth to its quality.

NEW HAVEN – In the here and now of climate change, it is easy to lose sight of important signs of progress. China, the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, is a case in point. By changing its economic model, shifting its sources of fuel, developing new transportation systems, and embracing eco-friendly urbanization, China’s sustainability strategy is an example of global leadership that the rest of the world should consider very carefully. In the rush to demonize China over trade, the West has missed this point altogether.

In the past 12 years, China’s economic structure has shifted dramatically from excessive reliance on smokestack manufacturing industries to low-carbon services. Back in 2006, the so-called secondary sector of GDP – largely manufacturing but also including construction and utility production — accounted for 48% of Chinese GDP, while the tertiary, or services, sector accounted for just 42% of GDP. By 2018, the shares had been reversed – 41% of GDP for the secondary sector and 52% for services. For large economies, structural changes of this magnitude in such a short period are virtually unprecedented.

This shift was no accident. In March 2007, former Premier Wen Jiabao famously warned of a Chinese economy that was becoming increasingly “unstable, unbalanced, uncoordinated, and unsustainable.” This sparked a vigorous debate over sustainability risks that had a major impact on China’s most recent five-year plans and reforms. The leadership concluded that the Chinese economy could no longer afford to stay the energy- and pollution-intensive course set by Deng Xiaoping’s hyper-growth gambit in the early 1980s.

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