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    Sustainable Development in China

    Amidst the pessimism surrounding the United Nations Rio+20 Summit, China is steadily working on transforming its pattern of economic development while attempting to preserve the environment.

    This year's United Nations Rio+20 Earth Summit, to be attended by leaders from over 190 nations, will focus upon two themes; green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, and the institutional framework for sustainable development. The ultimate goal of the summit is to secure renewed political commitment for sustainable development and in doing so improve people's living standards. However, after the collapse of the Kyoto Protocol, following announcements by Canada, Russia and Japan in 2011 that they would not take on further Kyoto targets, the impetus for change has fallen at the feet of individual states. Concerned observers look on as the Rio+20 summit calls for substantial multilateral action. 20 years after the first Earth Summit in Rio, Brazil, China now sits alongside America as one of the world's largest global polluters.

    According to Xinhua, China believes that the final text of this year's summit must adhere to three principles: Common but differentiated responsibilities; the balanced development of society, economy and environmental protection; and the guaranteed right of each country to choose its own road of sustainable development according to its circumstances. The call for China to assume more responsibilities in the field of sustainable development was recently by Du Ying, chairman of the Chinese preparatory committee for the Rio+20 Earth Summit, who stated that such calls were unrealistic, as China's GDP is only 53 percent of the world's average. Meanwhile, around 122 million people in China still live below the poverty line; a figure, which has increased since China revised its definition of poverty last year. The stance is understandable considering the late start to China's economic development.

    However, GDP has been widely questioned as a suitable measure of sustainable development and developing countries use the GDP marker as the basis of their argument for assuming less responsibility in cutting carbon emissions. Yet, China is leading the way in terms of green economy initiatives and there has been an explicit recognition on the part of the government of the damage caused by the country's rapid pace of economic development alongside an assessment of the challenges facing China when dealing with issues such as climate change. The financial value of services provided by ecosystems will be an important topic at this year conference and China is providing other nations with a blueprint by which to be successful. The emphasis upon the value of ecosystems within China is part of a broader, longer-term plan for economic development, which has set China apart from the rest of the world's leading nations.

    As Sara Reardon of the NewScientist has pointed out, the Yangtze floods of 1998 provided the Chinese government with undeniable proof that it could no longer ignore the cost of destroying its natural resources. The policies, which were enacted following these floods, have been incredibly successful, and the country is on track to restoring 40 million hectares of forest by 2020. The reforestation scheme also means that the government provides farmers with an economic incentive to move off sloping land so that forests can grow back. Recognition that economic development, and the exploitation of natural resources, could cost a nation more in the long term, due to direct or indirect damage, is something that China is keenly aware of. Add to this the desire to create green jobs via a scheme carried out in cooperation with the International Labor Organization; the country's fuel economy standards, which have improved overall fuel efficiency across cars of all weight classes; and the national climate change program, which vows to adopt laws to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it becomes apparent that China is taking an active role in promoting the concept of sustainable development with long term economic and environmental goals in mind.

    World Bank vice president for sustainable development, Rachel Kyte has stated, "Our current economic model is enormously inefficient in the way it does or doesn't use resources." She went on to say, "We need a different kind of growth, a greener more inclusive growth." It is hoped that the summit will achieve a set of goals to be adopted worldwide, establishing targets for consumption and production as well as establishing checks to make sure that these targets are met. China's need for resources will continue as it seeks further economic development, but it is slowly changing its approach to development, which has caused significant damage to the natural environment. The recent White Paper on Rare Earths, released by the Chinese government on June 20, states that China will not sacrifice the environment for the sake of rare earth development. Production caps, export quotas, stricter emission standards and higher resource taxes all tie in with the goal of building a green economy and strengthening the institutional framework of sustainable development.

    Whether the Rio+20 Summit will achieve its lofty goals is debatable and there has already been criticism and pessimism over watered down targets for cutting the levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Furthermore, many have voiced concerns over how important the issue of the green economy really is in the grand scheme of things, with many experts calling for more attention on water and air pollution. China has some way to go in both of these areas, but the introduction of payment systems aimed at provinces that pollute rivers and the adoption of the PM 2.5 standard to measure air quality are clear signs of the direction in which the Chinese nation is hoping to move in. The goals outlined in China's Twelfth Five Year Plan include using non-fossil fuel to account for 11.4 percent of primary energy consumption; cutting water consumption per unit of value-added output by 30 percent; cutting energy consumption per unit of GDP by 16 percent; cutting carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 17 percent; and increasing the rate of forest coverage to 21.66 percent. The plan outlines very concrete goals, which the Chinese government feels it must meet in order to prevent the slide of environmental degradation within its own border. And while the Rio+20 Summit is an excellent arena at which to discuss these topics out in the open, it is becoming increasingly more obvious that multilateral efforts to address environmental issues are not meeting the needs of the world's poorest.

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