Adopting and adapting sustainable approaches: China’s social and environmental transformation

By Matteo Bizzotto, Communications Officer, and Hannah Rothschild, City-Business Collaboration Officer

China’s rapid industrial and economic growth has come at the cost of soaring carbon emissions and negative environmental impacts. However, after becoming the world’s largest annual emitter, the country is now working hard to ensure that natural resources are preserved and ecological balance is restored for the future. To do this, China is pushing forward major reforms with sustainability-driven research and green investment. As a result, China is shifting from high-speed development to high-quality development.

This approach to development is embedded in China’s 5-year plan to achieve an ‘Ecological Civilization’. China is now championing a green wave of investments in clean energy, proactive measures on green financing, and the largest carbon trading system in the world. But greening the economy will not go far enough. The vision of becoming an Ecological Civilization also requires an emphasis on education and the full engagement of society in the journey towards sustainability.

This message was also brought to COP25 in Madrid, Spain in 2019, where China gathered influential stakeholders together on the Ecological Civilization,  demonstrating how this approach will guide their action on the Paris Agreement as well as ensure ecological restoration and social prosperity.


The confluence of sustainability ideas between Europe, North America and China

At the heart of the Ecological Civilization is the recognition that governments and communities need to fundamentally rethink current consumption and production models and move away from extractive and destructive economic practices. This growing consciousness is not only evident in China: Similar principles appear in the ‘Zero-Waste’ movement in the United States and in the ‘Circular Economy’ concept that originated in Europe. Since governments, businesses and civil society are increasingly interested in learning from diverse climate action frameworks to find solutions for the planet, such sustainability concepts are spreading across borders, being adopted and adapted within diverse local contexts.

This confluence of ideas is already taking effect in China. Circular development models are being implemented in Changchun and Datong municipalities, members of ICLEI’s Green Circular Cities Coalition (GCCC). Similarly, a Zero-Waste pilot program with eleven cities and five districts is empowering the local level to develop a scalable roadmap to control the increase of industrial solid waste, completely utilize agricultural waste and prohibit illegal dumping of solid waste.


Beijing E-Town: An example for the way forward

Beijing E-Town, for example, is one of the selected Zero-Waste pilot districts. An innovation and high-tech industrial district located in the southern region of the Beijing Municipality, the 58 km² area shifted its agricultural focus towards becoming an urban-industry hub in 1992.

Through the Zero-Waste initiative, E-Town now has the possibility of actively leveraging and engaging its residents to improve the city’s environmental situation and social needs. In addition to fostering economic growth and mitigating environmental degradation, E-Town seeks to fully match its utilities and social services to the high standards and infrastructure required by residents. Making public participation a key pillar of the Zero-Waste initiative aims to ensure public acceptance of other sustainability measures. The program also activates support for more sustainable individual lifestyles and instils a sense of belonging and community among residents.


Supporting E-Town to embrace citizen engagement and inclusion through Zero-Waste 

In 2020, ICLEI will be supporting E-Town in their Zero-Waste pilot implementation through the Urban Transitions Alliance Secretariat. ICLEI will specifically focus on bringing an equity lens to E-Town’s initiatives – ensuring that local citizens are brought into and benefit throughout the process. Knowledge exchange with other members will play a central role, especially with cities such as Turku, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, that have experience in launching and implementing Zero-Waste initiatives. Baltimore is also launching a Zero-Waste plan in 2020.

At the same time, the Alliance and its member cities may learn from E-Town and the other Chinese member cities’ experiences in implementing initiatives that embrace  China’s Ecological Civilization. The social aspect embedded in the Ecological Civilization framework could bring new ideas and inspiration on what social equity means for sustainability transitions.


This article was written in collaboration with the Urban Transition Alliance and published on the Alliance website.

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