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America Can Help China Clean-up Its Environment

Apr 15, 2013

It’s hard to utter the word, “sustainability” or “environmental stewardship” without followed by “China”.

With 1.3 billion people (one-fifth of the planet’s population), most building projects are done on a grand scale–everything from skyscrapers to factories and bullet trains, sea and airports.

Considering China as one big construction site, it has often been said that the Chinese national bird is the building crane!

Over the next two decades, nearly 300 million people, roughly the current population of the United States will move from the rural countryside into Chinese urban cities – many of which have yet to be built. Depending on coal as its main energy source, the environmental damage taking place across China today is not going to improve anytime soon.

Every time I eat seafood in China I think – “I have yet to see a body of water I would want to eat anything from”. The air quality is notoriously poor.

In 2011, for the first time in Chinese history, more people lived in cities and towns than in the countryside. It is estimated nearly 700 million urban dwellers now account for 51.3 percent of China’s total population. This rural/urban transition will be a main force shaping the world in the 21st century according to Nobel Laureate (economics) Joseph Stiglitz.

Furthermore, Brookings Institution analyst Homi Kharas has forecast that China’s middle class will surge from about 150 million in 2010 to about 670 million in 2021, a leap of about 520 million in a span of slightly more than a decade.

Anna Stupnytska, macroeconomist and Executive Director at Goldman Sachs Asset Management captured the essence of the issue this way, “The rise of the Chinese consumer will be the most important trend in the coming decade.”

These days China is in the center of any conversation about sustainable development and environmental degradation.

The country has much work to do in order to balance economic growth with environmental sustainability, which has made cancer the leading cause of death in the People’s Republic of China. Anyone who has traveled to or read about China knows that the air and water quality is poor.

A report from the Chinese Ministry of Water Resources found that the number of rivers in China with catchment areas of over 100 square kilometers has halved compared to 60 years ago. More than 28,000 waterways have vanished from China’s maps, as a result of the nation’s breakneck economic development.

China’s Dirt Creates Opportunity To Collaborate

In China social stability is paramount.

A year ago, in Dalian, local authorities backed down when mostly middle-class protesters had a stand off with security police forcing the closing of a petrochemical plant.

The paramount worry of Chinese officials is maintaining control and stability. There is a constant struggle to balance economic growth with rising public outcry and loathing over environmental threats to their way of life and their families’ health.

This debate will continue as China seeks growth and development to accommodate its 1.3 billion citizens. This will create opportunities for those that can use creativity, innovation, knowledge and technology to create jobs without destroying the environment and people’s sense of harmony.

Earlier this year, Mr. Ma Jun, China’s leading environmental activist and a recipient of last year’s prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, known as the “Nobel Prize” for grassroots environmentalists, organized a meeting in Beijing of nearly one hundred people – including city, provincial and central government officials, business leaders and NGO representatives – to discuss their efforts to promote environmental transparency and public disclosure of pollution data. This is a major step – admitting you have a problem is the first step in solving it.

The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) staff has been working with Ma Jun and his team for four years to rank the performance of 113 major Chinese cities in complying with environmental disclosure requirements.

America fouled the environment during our industrial revolution and we have spent decades attempting to clean up our mess.

Moving forward, China will face many difficulties and obstacles. American knowledge and technology can help not only our country, but also China meet sensible sustainable and environmental goals.

CNBC reports “China is also opening up to creative investments that tackle the demand for energy as well as its supply. Consider the recent announcement by Beijing’s Vantone Real Estate, which is planning a greenfield high-density, car-free “satellite city” for 80,000 people in a rural location close to Chengdu.”

Putting Our Knowledge And Technology to Work

Last year I spoke at the 4th China Entrepreneur Forum, Tianfu New District International Forum in Chengdu, China where local government and Southwest Jiaotong University leaders were seeking expertise to “take the green leap” to create innovative development models in building a sustainable new city. The desire to build healthy, sustainable and green cities was quite evident.

Xiaojian You, Chair of the China Social Innovative Foundation, the China Entrepreneur Network and the China Social Innovation Foundation and Senior Manager of the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise at Cornell University organized the conference.

Professor You and Stuart L. Hart, the SC Johnson Chair in Sustainable Global Enterprise and Professor of Management, Cornell University and President Enterprise for a Sustainable World, both formerly with the University of Michigan see opportunities galore for America to capitalize on and to assist China with sustainable development.

Professor Hart pointed out, “We need to devise a way to grow the innovations of the future organically, right here in the U.S., drawing upon our world class universities and corporations for the technologies of tomorrow. We do not lack for clean technology; what we lack is the imagination and capability to design the strategies and business models of tomorrow.”

“There is a huge global market for our knowledge,” Hart added.

America put the world on wheels in the last century – with imagination and leadership we can drive sustainable development in the 21st century. We have massive experience in cleaning up the environmental mess our industrial revolution wrought.

It is a big world and neither China nor America is an island. What happens in one country impacts the other – and all humanity.  With forward thinking and leadership from government, university and business leaders in America, China’s rise need not come at our demise.

America can literally make green off of China’s growth.

Tom Watkins serves on the University of Michigan Confucius Institute board of advisors and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation international advisory board.  He is the former Michigan state superintendent of schools, president and CEO of the economic council of Palm Beach County, FL. and is currently a U.S./China business and educational consultant.

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