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Event report --- How Green is China?

28 September 2017

On 28 September the EU-Asia Centre organized a panel discussion on the question - How Green is China?

Isabel Hilton (Editor of China Dialogue) said that China used to have blue skies until industrialisation started in the 60s. The prevailing mood then was pollute first and clean up later. Now opinion was changing fast due to lower life expectancy in polluted regions and the advent of clean technology. Air pollution was the most obvious problem and can be addressed. Water was bad and soil pollution terrible.

Efforts undertaken in the realm of “ecological civilization” – a term coined by Xi Jinping – were being impeded by the scale of the task and the top down coercion of the political system. Existing laws and regulations for the protection of the environment were very good but often disregarded. Inspections were slow and there were too few inspectors. If new regulations to tackle air pollution in the coastal provinces were introduced this would likely result in a major move of critical companies to the Western provinces, an area with an even more vulnerable environment but less restrictions. When looking at the global scale one must not forget that despite its support of the Paris agreement China’s reliance on coal continues (2010-2014 $38 billion worth). China was much greener than it used to be but there were still many obstacles.

Ulf Bjornholm (Director UN Environment Brussels Office) reminded people that Europe also had problems a few decades ago eg the London smog. And there were still problems in Europe including air pollution in Brussels. China was fulfilling its Paris commitments perhaps helped by the centralistic character of the Chinese political system. The UNEP had strong links with the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection and both were working together to promote the sustainable development of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The UN and China also collaborated in a growing number of other projects such as the green economy and waste recycling. It was likely that this cooperation would be further deepened in future.

Helge Zeitler (Deputy Head of Unit, DG Environment) underlined China’s dramatic shift in attitude regarding environmental issues. The government’s acknowledgement of the scale of the problem demonstrated serious commitment and provided a good common basis for cooperation. One encouraging example Zeitler pointed out was the government’s resolute shutdown of ivory carving industries in order to tackle illegal trade in wildlife. In certain areas environmental cooperation between the EU and China led to mutual benefits as could be seen in the field of sustainable water and waste management. Here China was very eager to learn from the EU and the EU had an interest to support its related businesses. China was also willing to host multilateral events on the environment. At the same there was room for improvement in the green finance area as well as in the processes of engagement (better regulation, impact assessments) with stakeholders).

In the discussion questions were raised about the role of civil society actors, the car sector and consequences for domestic pollution (e-cars), the future of nuclear energy and the binding nature of the Paris agreement.