China and Sustainability: An impossible combination?

Frederiek van LieshoutGeen categorie

china sustainabilityWhen I tell people I lived in Shanghai for one year, one of the first things they will ask me: ‘But isn’t the air badly (polluted)?’ or; ‘Didn’t the smog bother/affect you?’. Yep, when you say China, it seems that the last thing that comes to mind (or the first…) is sustainability. But what do we really know and understand about the relationship China has with sustainability?

It is not a secret that sustainability in China is seen as a complex problem. Last couple of years, there are many reports written on the country’s deteriorating environment and the problems this causes.; from air pollution, to dirty factories, to the devastation of land mainly caused by manmade floods and droughts. However, other reports suggest that in some areas China is leading the West in green investments and is approving Beijing’s progress on sustainability.

Firstly, it is important to understand how China views sustainability. Ever since China opened up its market in the early 1980s, many people have been lifted out of absolute poverty and have been brought up to the prosperous middle class. This unrestrained growth however also brought problems of its own. Among these problems are the earlier discussed environmental problems. Different than from most Western countries, China’s issues of sustainability are not historically linked to private consumption but are linked to the industrial processes that are supporting China’s economic development. As still millions of people remain in poverty, economic growth will still remain the priority.

At the same time China’s leaders are aware that as many environmental failures are leading to social instability, changes need to be made. These changes often come in the form of investments of large sums of money and time into finding environmental solution, which are sometimes successful, and sometimes not. Private investments in sustainable technology are also present, but have to live with the pressure to deliver their products and services with a lower profit margin attached. A great example of a sustainable project in Beijing would be the Smog Free Project from a Dutch Design studio named Studio Roosegaarde.

For China, the upcoming decade will be crucial. For most Chinese people, issues on sustainability are focused around carbon emission and the need to save energy, but these are seen as intangible issues. Most Chinese people will focus on problems that are tangible for them, such as safety and health. The goal of developing a harmonious society will drive the Chinese people forward to not only being driven by pragmatism but will help them to gradually move away in regarding sustainability as off-plan. In the upcoming weeks I will try to give a more nuanced view of China’s efforts on sustainibility by informing you guys on the latest developments in a serie of blogs.