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Countering Climate Change: Towards an Eco-Civilization for All

Sep 17, 2015

Five years after Copenhagen, we see today an unprecedented global effort to secure a successful outcome for the global climate summit to be held in Paris this December. Much progress has been made. But much more still needs to be done. It will also require a deep attitudinal change for all countries on the core, underlying question of sustainable development.

Much has happened since Copenhagen. Many Governments, including the United States, China, India, and the European Union, are working hard to forge agreements to help prevent a global temperature increase of more than 2 degrees centigrade. The focus is two-fold: on securing voluntary emissions reduction commitments from all significant economies, and on funding climate change adaptation in the poorest and most vulnerable countries.

Yet, the hard reality is that according to recent research by the Grantham Research Institute at the London School of Economics, current national commitments on emissions reductions would still result in an average temperature increase of 3.5 degrees this century. This would have untenable consequences for the planet. Much, much more remains to be done.

Beyond the formal negotiations in preparation for Paris, parallel emphasis is also now needed on the “softer” components of sustainable development and climate change mitigation. These include the behavioral patterns of individuals and firms. In part this relates to policy prescriptions on carbon regulation and carbon pricing. But it also includes simple but effective public education on the impact of discretionary decisions by individuals on the natural environment, and how that behavior can change. This is not just a change in policy settings. It is also a change in culture.

In this respect, China is making a fresh national effort. China’s “Eco-Forum Global” met in July 2015 in Guiyang. Through this increasingly reputable forum, the Chinese government is seeking to develop its own concept of sustainable development – what China calls “eco-civilization”. This flows from the work of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, to be adopted by the international community this September. It aims to embed the concept and practice of sustainability across the entire economic development spectrum. China has now adopted this concept of “eco-civilization” as formal state policy, with the objective of dislodging long-entrenched attitudes towards economic development embedded in a deep psychology of “development at any cost”.

So what does China means by “eco-civilization”? At its core, it is a view of the world which attaches intrinsic value to all living things and the ecosystems that support them – irrespective of their usefulness or importance to human beings. In other words, we humans need to regard ourselves as but one part of the living organism that is planet earth. Certainly human beings have a unique responsibility because of the destructive power we have at our disposal. It is because of our destructive habits to date that we now see ecological stresses and strains across all our natural environments.

Put simply, we must therefore choose what kind of civilization we wish to be: one that is anchored in the principles of sustainability; or one that continues to entertain the dangerous fiction that somehow our natural resources are infinite. In the end, these are all human decisions – economic decisions, political decisions, and ultimately civilizational decisions. China believes that “eco-civilization” will remain little more than a pipe dream without the tangible contribution of each and every citizen, company and community to the overriding mission of sustainable development.

In this respect, China realizes that it has particular global responsibilities. Certainly much of the current climate change crisis is attributable to the collective west and more than two centuries of “development at any cost”. But climate change is a reality that developing countries like India and China must also now face. China recognizes that it cannot simply adopt a “business as usual” approach, as this would be environmentally disastrous both for itself and for the entire world.

For these reasons, most countries would like to see China, given that it has already achieved the Millennium Development Goal of halving poverty in its own country, now turn its national efforts to a more comprehensive sustainable economic development strategy for the future. The world knows that if China does this effectively it will significantly reduce global climate risks. If China succeeds, it could also offer a model for other emerging economies to emulate. Because the sheer size of its economy and population, China’s decisions will be critical both for itself and the planet.

Profound attitudinal changes to the challenge of sustainable development will require both dedicated national action and international cooperative endeavor. Without a transformation of our prevailing values, without changes in individual human behavior, without a dedicated reorientation of our various educational systems towards the demands of sustainable development, the world will fall well short of what needs to be done to sustain the planet.

Such efforts must also include the development of innovative public-private partnerships, the forging of alliances between businesses and research institutions, as well as alliances between cities, sub-national governments and nation-states. The fundamental truth is that both individuals and institutions at all levels will have a crucial role to play. And none of this will happen without a re-definition of civilizational values to incorporate principles of sustainable development.

While China calls this new approach “eco-civilization” (生态文明, shengtai wenming) which benefit from the wisdom and knowledge of east and west, others will use their own language and their own expressions. But the essential concept is the same – all united around the common mission to protect the only planet we have. Planet earth is our common heritage. It is also our common destiny.

As others have said, there is no plan B for sustainable development. And there is certainly not a planet B. So whatever formal agreements we are going to reach this December, there must be a deeper attitudinal change across all continents and cultures on the central task of sustainable development. Let us hope that Paris becomes a catalytic and transformational moment for all of us across this wonderful planet of ours – our common heritage and our common destiny.

Source: Eco-Forum Global, China & Asia Society Policy Institute

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