06/13/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Creating an Environmental Miracle in China

“When I came to Vermont I could see the Milky Way, so many stars, it was so beautiful. I haven’t seen stars since I was a child in Beijing, fifty years ago,” Zhang Ye, the Institute for Sustainable Communities country representative in China told me last night.

That observation sums up why I am here to help launch the Guangdong Environmental Partnership. I founded this non-government organization 18 years ago and never thought that one day we would partner with China to deal with energy efficiency, green house gas emissions and environmental health and safety.

Today was the launch of our four-pronged project, which includes an environmental health and safety (EHS) academy, environmental education, and energy efficiency projects in three communities.

It took place at Sun Yat-sen University in Guandong, a province of more than 100 million people, larger than all of New England. The university prides itself on being green in the visual sense, large expanses of lawn, walkways lined with banyan trees covered with what looks like Spanish moss, but which the Chinese call tree moustaches. The climate is humid and tropical. The air, always hazy. Not only are there no stars, there are no sunsets.

But the sun seemed to smile this morning on this initiative which has many partners—ISC, the U.S. Agency for International Development, corporate sponsors including GE, Citi, Honeywell, The Japan Foundation, Adidas, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Chinese Government and Lingnan college in Sun Yat-sen university. Each VIP participant (yes, there are VIPs in a communist society) was given a double orchid corsage, worn by the men as well as the women. Banners on lamp poles announced the event and a huge blue banner naming all the partners formed the stage backdrop.

It was a celebratory day but it consisted of more than plaques, handshakes, and photo ops. There was substance in two panel discussions where the phrases sustainable development, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, energy efficiency, environmental protection and climate change were the common denominators for all the participants.

It seems we all need one another. For example, the Chinese government has set high goals in its most recent five-year plan to reduce energy consumption by 10% from 2005 by 2010. Ironically, the economic downturn may help them achieve that. But the economic downturn may also slow down investment in such vital projects as wastewater treatment plants and scrubbers in coal fired power plants. Still, the government wants to be on the right side of this issue and is beginning to recognize the high costs in health and safety of the rampant pollution, which has accompanied rampant economic growth. They boasted that they are the no. 2 wind energy producer today (after the U.S.) and want to expand in the direction of renewable energy. Meanwhile, of course, they continue to build coal-fired power plants. But their own citizens are beginning to protest.

I learned about a factory, which has to move out of a residential neighborhood because of noise and pollution, and of a power plant, which was not built, because the neighbors protested.

American corporations need to get engaged in this environmental initiative when they have a supply chain in China and must burnish their environmental image to sell products to consumers who are developing a heightened “green” awareness.

In my opening remarks I acknowledged that this economic growth has lifted millions of Chinese out of poverty. That has been a huge achievement.

Before the conference I had a chat with the deputy director of the Chinese equivalent of the EPA and I asked him what could America do to help China most effectively.

“Understand China,” he said, “and know our history and culture.” That is no doubt our most difficult task, to respect our differences even as we work collaboratively.

I said we are not here to tell you what to do. We are here to give you the capacity to solve your problems yourselves.

The challenge here is the same as the challenge everywhere (a challenge I also experienced as Governor when some resisted environmental laws and regulations, claiming they were bad for business)—how to convince people that investment in health, safety and energy efficiency is vital, in good times and in bad, that they are in fact “good” for business. Those companies that makes these investments cut costs in the long term by saving energy, making better products, avoiding clean up costs, and protecting the health of their workers and the public.

This argument is particularly important here in Guangdong province, home of “the economic miracle” of China. I suggested they create an equal environmental miracle.

As I listened to speaker after speaker at the conference, all saying the right things, I concluded that the most powerful forces for change were American companies who buy products from Chinese suppliers and the potential of American consumers to apply pressure on these companies. The companies have the leverage to demand that these thousands of suppliers who manufacture goods meet environmental, health, and safety standards.

One prominent presence here was Wal-Mart, which has 3,000 suppliers in this province. Ken Lanshe, director of ethical standards and sustainability for Wal-Mart said they did 10,000 audits recently for social and environmental compliance and “found gaps.” If they demanded that their suppliers close these “gaps” they would have a powerful impact on environmental quality in China, and potentially, the globe.

And, if American consumers demanded green products in every sense of the word—green in regard to factory worker health and safety issues, green in regard to energy efficiency, green in regard to water and air quality, the consumer could be a powerful player.

At the end of the conference we had a group photograph, a typical ending for Chinese conferences, I am told. Everyone wanted to be in the picture. The big question is whether they will remain in the picture for the long term. Several speakers commented on the importance of changing people’s thinking—everything from changing thinking about wearing safety goggles and safety shoes on the factory floor (something workers resist here in a hot climate and do not yet see the point of this inconvenience) to changing the thinking of plant managers so that they recognize the benefits of environmental investments. One thing I still have trouble visualizing here is the scope of the problem. One panelist was the CEO of Pearl River Beer Group. They are proud of their environmental achievements and informed us that they are one of the largest breweries in the world, producing 1.8 million tons of beer a year. I wondered how many bottles there are in a ton.

In the afternoon we participated in a round-table discussion at the Sun Yat-sen University law school, which has a partnership with Vermont Law School to train judges, lawyers, officials, and students. It’s a coincidence that Vermont is engaged in two projects at the same university. No doubt the Chinese will conclude that Vermont is an unusually important state. We will not disabuse them of this. Vermont is unique in reaching out to China to prevent further environmental degradation on our planet in these innovative ways. We may not be able to change the world, but we sure are giving it a good try.

This was originally posted at Chelsea Green.

Madeleine M. Kunin is the former Governor of Vermont and was the state's first woman governor. She served as Ambassador to Switzerland for President Clinton, and was on the three-person panel that chose Al Gore to be Clinton's VP. She is the author of Pearls, Politics, and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead from Chelsea Green Publishing.