China – a learner & a leader in green leapfrogging?

Publication Date: 

Wednesday, 26 October 2011 - 1:00am


Guest Author -Dongying Wang - Global Environmental Institute
Photo by Rob Welham

During the last couple of years, China has taken a huge, globally-recognized step to make its economy more sustainable. The green agenda was added to government programmes, incorporated in business strategies and integrated into teaching schemes. How did this process come to life?

On the one hand, international pressures on the world’s leading emitter to cap emissions led China to initiate a transition to building a green economy. On the other hand, a pressing domestic demand for a better living environment without the current suffocating air and water pollution provided another incentive.

Commenting on China’s green revolution, Achim Steiner, UNEP Executive Director and Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, recently stated in Nairobi that China is moving towards a high-efficient green economy and will provide leadership in this global process. As an example, he cited China’s massive afforestation movement over the past two decades which has enabled the country to achieve net forest coverage increase – at the highest pace worldwide.

Inarguably, China possesses the wealth, in both money and the number of talented people, to fulfil its sustainable goals. Yet, despite impressive plans and ambitious goals, what really matters in the end are the results delivered on the ground.

China has gradually transformed its planned economy to a market-oriented system during three decades of reform and opening up to the outside world starting in the late 1970s. But how long will the country need to complete another transition, this time to a low-carbon economy? While implementing a market mechanism was key to China’s first-phase economic facelift, the second-phase overhaul will depend on a combination of internal and external factors. NGOs working on China’s low-carbon programmes have clearly stated that the transition will bring both, challenges and opportunities for Chinese governments at all levels, businesses and individuals.


In a top-down policy structure, the achievement of China’s aspiring and compulsory green targets, including energy intensity reduction by 16% and carbon emissions by 17% from 2011 to 2015, will rely on the actions by local governments. However, powerful provincial governments are often reluctant to make all-out efforts to implement nationally-set targets, especially those which could potentially come at a cost to GDP growth.

The good news is that improvements are under way. For instance, in addition to GDP, sustainability has become part of the criteria to assess the performance of local officials. Allocated green targets have been added to provincial economic planning, and local officials are held accountable for designing green roadmaps.

However, more effective regulation and administration are needed for the central government to oversee, evaluate, review and provide assistance for the performance at provincial levels. Facing pressing tasks, local officials have had to take some short-cut measures to produce green planning. These roadmaps are often less executable due to a lack of economic analysis for policies and measures, few details concerning concrete steps for action, and little engagement of stakeholders.

Scientific approach

Chinese government officials, academies and analysts have recognized the importance of using proper tools and expertise for economic analysis as the basis for taking the right decisions. Consider the development of a green economy: China is in dire need of technical support, and could learn a great deal from the West, particularly with regards to data collection and management, as well as developing and applying economic models.

The Global Environmental Institute, a Beijing-based Chinese NGO, has helped Chinese analysts at central and local levels to adapt the sector-based methodology which has successfully been used for US state-level climate action planning, to a Chinese context. Such projects will aid Chinese experts and their partners from the US Center for Climate Strategies and the Regional Economic Models to produce a Chinese template approach. This template will include models for assessing individual policies’ cost-effectiveness and impacts upon GDP and employment. Cross-border collaboration is expected to introduce a more scientific approach to China’s toolkits to create more affordable, effective and actionable green polices.


It is never an easy job to adapt experiences from overseas. There are distinct differences between countries and regions, particularly in areas of economic structures, availability and accessibility of data and other key information, as well as cooperation methods between related agencies within a certain country.

In particular, the issue of intellectual property rights is often a barrier for international cooperation on green technology and prevents know-how from being shared. Successful cases have suggested that creating a joint venture between collaborators could tackle this problem. Joint ventures enable the timely and cost-effective deployment of technologies while protecting international property, allowing users to reap the profits and thus not stifle incentives for innovation.

Obviously, cooperation with a real interest in fixing the climate issues rather than a fixation on self-serving profits would provide more support for developing countries’ endeavour to achieve low-carbon development. In return, know-how investors with a long-term vision are likely to yield higher profits.

China is pressing ahead with its green revolution. Global praise ensues along with criticism of these efforts. What is clear though, is that the experience and lessons China is gathering through its sustainable leapfrog will provide a green curriculum for countries rising up to the same mission.


Dongying Wang, Energy & Climate Change Program Coordinator for the Global Environmental Institute, and International Fellow at IIED. 

Photo by Rob Welham