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Chinese Shift: Put the Environment Above GDP Growth

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Qin Guangrong is the Communist Party Secretary of Yunnan Province, China

KUNMING -- Ecological and environmental issues have become strategic issues with a global bearing. As vividly put by some experts, if the 4-billion-year history of the Earth could be compressed to just 100 years, the most primitive plants and animals would only begin to appear in its 50s, and large reptiles like dinosaurs when the Earth hit 95 years of age.

As for man, it would be less than a day since its advent and the Industrial Revolution would be just five minutes ago. However, it is precisely this one day and these five short minutes that have caused the Earth unprecedented or even irreparable destruction in the process of creating huge material wealth.

"We would rather reduce our growth rate a bit in order to protect the environment and never seek short-term economic development at the expense of the environment. We should never pursue a 'pollution first, treatment later' approach. "

Based on the current growth rate, by 2030, the world population will grow from 7 billion to more than 8 billion with three quarters of mankind living in cities. The increase of 1 billion people will bring with it greater pressure on transport infrastructure, water and energy supply as well as waste treatment. At the same time, many developing countries will gradually become developed ones, and people will have a stronger desire for a modern lifestyle. All these will make our common global challenges such as resources, energy, food security, public health, the environment and climate change more acute and the conflict of man versus resources and the environment more pronounced.

History warns us that the transition from a primitive civilization to an agrarian civilization, and then an industrial one, was invariably achieved under pressure from the outside environment and amid growing knowledge on our own part.

History also tells us that mankind's march toward a higher form of civilization is unstoppable. A new form of civilization featuring environmental protection is dawning, and the 21st century will surely be a century of green development and environmental protection.

In the face of challenges and the new development trend, China has demonstrated its resolve as a responsible big country.

At the Climate Change Conference held in Copenhagen in December 2009, the Chinese government, based on the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities", pledged that China's CO2 emissions per unit GDP will be lowered by 40% to 45% by 2020 compared with the 2005 level.

The 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) held at the end of 2012 put forward -- for the first time -- an overall plan for promoting economic, political, cultural, social AND ecological progress. It raised environmental protection to an unprecedented strategic position.

General Secretary Xi Jinping pointed out that embracing a new era of environmental protection is an important part of realizing the renewal of the Chinese nation.

These decisions embody the new value and development concept of respecting the nature and seeking harmony, elevating the relationship between man and nature to a new level. They mark our grasp of the concept of a higher form of development.

It is the responsibility for regional officials such as myself to fully implement the decision of the central government on ecological improvement.


Yunnan is a beautiful frontier province in southwestern China and it is home to many ethnic groups.

British writer James Hilton described a pure and beautiful place called Shangri-La in his 1933 novel The Lost Horizons where people lived in peace, prosperity and contentment under a crystal-clear sky amid snow mountains, glaciers and lakes. Shangri-La is precisely a case in point of the beauty of Yunnan.

Yunnan is also known as the kingdom of plants, animals, microbes and biodiversity. In Yunnan, people of all ethnic groups are dedicated to cherishing this wondrous green homeland of theirs. In recent years, we have been striving to foster the following six concepts in Yunnan:

- First, the environment is the base of our development and it always comes the first. Environmental considerations carry veto power in the formulation of major decisions as well as regional development and project construction.

- Second, the environment is an important productive force and protecting and improving the environment is in essence protecting and improving our productive forces.

- Third, we should seek maximum economic and social returns at the minimum expense of the environment and try our best to cut down resource consumption and environmental damage to maximize our socioeconomic output, bringing sustainability to our environment and finite resources.

- Fourth, our development should come with environmental protection and environmental protection will also lead to development. Development is the most important job but environmental protection is the precondition, and we have to strike a right balance between resource development and environmental protection.

- Fifth, we would rather reduce our growth rate a bit in order to protect the environment and never seek short-term economic development at the expense of the environment. We should never pursue a "pollution first, treatment later" approach and we need to blaze a new development path featuring growth, prosperity and good environment.

- Sixth, we should use a myriad of ways to protect the environment and fully institutionalize our work in this regard.

kunming city night

Kunming, capital of Yunnan, at night (Getty)

To implement these policies, we have put in place a number of key governance measures:

- First, we have set in place and improved our comprehensive evaluation system for environmental protection, in which items such as resources and energy conservation as well as ecological treatment are included as criteria for assessing the performance of party committees and governments at all level with clear responsibilities and a reward and punishment mechanism.

- Second, we have implemented a strict system on assessing the environmental impact. Assessment of a planned project's environmental impact has become a precondition for its go-ahead and such assessments are carried out in accordance with law for all types of special project plans, major decisions and construction programs.

- Third, we have established a stringent environmental access system. We have scaled up our systems for the protection of arable land, water resources management as well as environmental protection to the maximum extent and all those projects that fail to meet the requirements will be strictly prohibited from launch and production.

- Fourth, we have introduced a system for the protection of land resources. Based on the requirements of the strategy of building national function zone, we have clarified the positioning and development direction of Yunnan as a function zone to eliminate incidents such as reckless development of land resources and environmental degradation at their source.

- Fifth, we are actively building and improving our eco-subsidy mechanism. We are exploring the establishment of a mechanism for the compensated use of resources and an eco-subsidy mechanism, accelerating the price reform of resource products and gradually setting in place a pricing mechanism that reflects the rarity of resources. This is something like carbon trading permits.

- Sixth, we are working on an environmental accountability system and compensation system for environmental damages.

Beyond this we are actively expanding our forest coverage. The current rate has risen from 49.91% in 2005 to 54.6%, and we aim at making it 60% by 2020.

Further, almost 14 billion yuan have been invested since 2008 in protecting biodiversity and sustainable utilization. Our focus has been placed on the 180,000 square kilometer land in northwestern and southwestern Yunnan, which is home to about 1/3 and 1/10 of life forms in China and the world respectively.

We are treating the nine high altitude lakes, including the Dian Lake, to return them to purity. The priority is on stricter prevention of pollutants. In the five years ahead, more than 55 billion yuan will be invested to promote the integrated prevention and treatment of water pollution for the nine lakes to ensure that the water quality of about 70% of all the lakes and reservoirs can reach category 3 or more.

The same comprehensive treatment programs are being put in place for major river basins. Projects such as soil erosion prevention and vegetation restoration will be enhanced for major rivers such as the Yangtze River, Zhu River, Lancang River, Nu River and Red River and make sure that their water will reach a quality equivalent to category 3 and above.

All urban sewage and domestic garbage treatment facilities in counties and bigger cities will be well-sheltered. Since 2008, Yunnan has invested about 20 billion yuan in urban sewage and domestic garbage treatment facilities. By the end of this year, we will be able to achieve our goal of providing well-sheltered sewage and domestic garbage treatment facilities for all the 129 counties and cities in Yunnan. Sixth,

Energy conservation and emissions reduction to improve air quality are a priority. Air quality in 18 main cities reaches a high-quality rate of 90% and this figure is almost 100% for cities like Dali and Lijiang.

In the next decade we are rolling out environmentally friendly management for the 670,000 hectares of steep hillside arable land with a slope of more than 25 degrees and special ecologically fragile hillside arable land in the province. Eighth, advance treatment for stony desertification.

We aim at basically stemming new stony desertification caused by human activity in 65 counties of Yunnan Province.

In all of these cases, we are providing mechanisms for public participation so that environmental quality becomes part of the general awareness of the population, which is key to sustaining follow through in all these areas.

President Xi Jinping and the central government have made clear that ecological improvement -- including low carbon development -- must be integrated into China's whole development plan. We all understand that we need to create the kind of industrial structure, production model, lifestyle and a pattern for the use of land resources that are resource conserving and environmentally friendly. Like the rest of China, Yunnan must leave a sound environment for future generations and become again the invaluable and unique "green box" of Shangri-La for the rest of the world.