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scohenbwAs greenhouse gas emissions are slowly reduced in Europe and the U.S., total global emissions are still rising, due in large part to the fast-growing economies of India and China. The U.S. Energy Information Agency reports that half of the world’s increase in energy consumption by 2040 will be attributed to China and India, “as they use energy to fuel their economic growth.”

axz700 / Shutterstock.com
Tiananmen tower enveloped by the heavy fog and haze. Many China’s cities face serious air pollution and poor air quality. Photo credit: axz700 / Shutterstock.com

While Chinese investment in solar power recently hit an all-time high, China is still relying heavily on coal and other fossil fuels to meet its increasing economic and energy demands. According to Justin Gillis of the New York Times:

“China is spending heavily on renewable and nuclear energy as it tries to slow the growth of coal, but despite those efforts it has become by far the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Its emissions of 10 billion tons a year of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels and cement manufacturing are almost twice those of the United States, though emissions per person are still far higher in the United States.”

Of course, climate change is not the only global sustainability problem, but it is an important and prominent one. Reducing emissions and promoting global environmental sustainability is a shared responsibility for all countries, but China’s contribution is particularly important. China recognizes their key role. At the United Nations Climate Summit last month, the Chinese Vice Premier announced China’s intention to reach peak carbon dioxide emissions as soon as possible, building on previously-announced commitments to set a cap on carbon. However, although the Chinese government has worked to establish a sustainable strategy for its development, the sheer pace of China’s economic growth makes it a difficult task.

It is important for China and in fact all of the planet’s economic development, that we incorporate  a more holistic understanding of environmental sustainability—including, but not limited to, greenhouse gas emissions—as we make the transition to a sustainable, renewable economy. For this to happen, we need a rigorous, valid and standardized system to measure and manage sustainability. We need a generally accepted set of sustainability metrics if we are to seriously assess the progress we are making during the transition to a sustainable economy.

Next week, I’ll be traveling to Beijing to formalize a partnership between Columbia University’s Earth Institute and the China Center for International Economic Exchanges (CCIEE), a leading think tank focused on promoting international economic research and exchanges in various fields. One of our research groups at the Earth Institute, the Research Program on Sustainability Policy and Management, will be conducting joint research with the Center to design a sustainability measurement and metrics system based on China’s unique economic development path.

The broader importance of this work lies in the need for a standardized methodology to organize the vastly increasing amount of sustainability performance measures—in a way that enhances organizational and local level management and improves sustainability performance. The partnership with CCIEE will produce applied research that can contribute to both U.S. and Chinese decision-making in sustainability policy. This, in turn, could facilitate the development of renewable resource-based economies in China, the U.S. and around the world.

While in Beijing, I’ll also be visiting the Columbia Global Centers | East Asia, an important partner for the Earth Institute as we expand our research into China, where I’ll be giving a talk on “Environmental Policy and the Business of Sustainability.” I’ll be discussing the importance of environmental policy in achieving a sustainable society and the need to manage short-term costs for long-term gains. I’ll trace the environmental movement over the past century, exploring how the environment emerged as a public policy issue and how current environmental policy reflects our values as society. I’ll also discuss how environmental regulation influences the economy and demonstrate how the path to a clean economy requires public policy that stimulates changes in the economic behaviors of businesses, governments and individuals.

As China advances their sustainability efforts and aims to achieve a growing economy along with a cleaner environment, it’s important that they look at how other countries have overcome similar obstacles. I have worked on U.S. environmental issues since 1975, and have a keen appreciation of the mistakes we made here in the U.S. as we moved to decouple the growth of pollution from the growth of the gross domestic product (GDP). Before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created, U.S. pollution was growing at a rate similar to the rate of economic growth. By the time EPA was a decade old, the absolute levels of pollution had dropped, while the GDP continued to grow. With few exceptions, that trend has continued ever since. My hope is that some of what we learned here in the U.S. through trial and error I can share with my colleagues in China and help them avoid making some of the mistakes we made.

Ultimately, it will be important for the U.S.  to increase its efforts on sustainability and decrease carbon emissions, but it’s necessary for China to quickly step up their efforts as well. While China faces many challenges, I look forward to the Earth Institute playing a small part in efforts to advance China’s sustainability strategy with the China Center for International Economic Exchanges.

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