Yin and Yang:
Striving for sustainable harmony in China
Blog by Wayne Visser
Waking dragon of the East
I first visited China in 2008, where I presented at the China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) conference on Responsible Competitiveness, in Shanghai. I was also a judge for the Innovate China International MBA competition. My initial impressions were that – contrary to popular belief – in the medium to long term, China may very well set an example for other countries and companies in terms of sustainability and responsibility.
A clue to my optimism came from something that William Valentino, CSR Director for Bayer in China, said to me: ‘Above all else, China prizes stability. And stability, in turn, can only be maintained under conditions of social upliftment and environmental improvement.’ Despite labour conditions remaining a concern, human rights abuses are starting to become the exception rather than the rule, and I believe China’s sustained economic boom is doing far more social good than harm.
Reconciling its new-found addiction to growth with environmental constraints, however, may prove its most difficult challenge yet. Elizabeth Economy, author of The River Runs Black, has studied China’s environmental challenges in depth and believes the crisis they face is deep and intractable. The facts she cited when I interviewed her for The Top 50 Sustainability Books, were sobering, to say the least. She told me China has 20 of the world’s 30 most polluted cities in terms of its air quality. Seven hundred and fifty thousand people die prematurely every year in China because of respiratory diseases related to air pollution.
Water is another major challenge. China has only 25% of the world’s average per capita availability of water. Something like almost 30% of the water that runs through China’s seven major river systems and tributaries is unfit even for agriculture or industry, much less any form of drinking or fishing. Between five and ten cities will completely run out of water by 2050. China is roughly one-quarter desert, and the desert is advancing somewhere between 1,300 and 1,900 square miles per year. Furthermore, 10% of China’s agricultural land is contaminated with heavy metals and other contaminants.
People like Amory Lovins, founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, is more optimistic. He told me that China is the only country that’s cut its energy intensity over 5% a year for a quarter of a century. They are the world leader in distributed renewable sources of power and is the only country that has energy efficiency as its top development priority. To be sure, implementation is at an early stage. But, Lovins said, China has better leaders than we do, are more highly motivated and work harder. ‘For all these reasons, I think we can rely on China to lead the world out of the climate mess.’
William McDonough, co-author of Cradle to Cradle, shares these sentiments. He told me that while …
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Cite this blog
Visser, W. (2013) Yin and yang: Striving for sustainable harmony in China, Wayne Visser Blog Series, 31 July 2013.