Opinion: Covid-19 Challenges China’s Sustainable Development Agenda
While the effects of the coronavirus continue to ricochet across the globe, some parts of the world are just beginning to see the economic effects of the virus. For those of us with an interest in China’s sustainability ambitions, one important question to ponder is how the health crisis could potentially impact those ambitions.
The direct short-term environmental impact of China’s production engine being slowed to a halt looks likely to mean that China’s demand for natural resources in 2020 as well as its emissions will be lower than in most years prior.
As China gradually gets back to business throughout March and April, fears are that this respite will be short-lived and then offset by the economic stimulus designed to achieve a rapid economic recovery. An easing of requirements for environmental protection will likely happen in the short run to reduce red tape. This will allow for an acceleration of the construction of infrastructure, including roads, rail and real estate. At the same time, the stimulus will possibly also boost further progress in green and digital technologies in China.
If the virus has had any positive effects, it has certainly increased awareness of the imbalance between the human and natural ecosystems. One thing is for certain — awareness and behavioral change are crucial if China is to lead the sustainability trend.
One crucial realization, which is fortunately clear to most Chinese people, is that the illegal wild animal trade and society’s increasing invasion of wildlife habitats are signals of an unsustainable imbalance between the human world and animal ecosystems. Tackling climate change and striving for a sustainable balance between the natural ecosystem and human activity are critical to preventing future virus outbreaks.
Most indications point to the virus having first appeared at a wildlife market — a fact that should cause us to demand the regulation of (parts of) these activities. China has the world’s largest wildlife markets and the coronavirus pandemic provides a significant opportunity to stem and regulate wildlife consumption.
China’s top legislature — the National People’s Congress — decided on Feb. 24 to eliminate the bad habit of eating wild animals and crack down on the illegal wildlife trade to better protect people’s health.
While it is an overdue move, it remains to be seen whether the scope of the law will be as impactful as hoped for. Several kinds of animals are not covered (e.g. aquatic animals) and there is a lack of clarity about how it will be applied to the consumption of wildlife for traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) or for “scientific purposes.”
Furthermore, the coronavirus crisis has slowed progress toward meeting two of the biggest promises of the Communist Party of China — a doubling of GDP and GDP per capita compared with the year 2010, and the total eradication of poverty.
Accordingly, stimulus is likely to be directed to infrastructure and real estate development, which are expected to result in employment, allowing the government to raise much-needed funds while increasing homeowners’ wealth. However, such stimulus will likely also have a negative sustainability impact resulting from materiality risks associated with the outsized role of steel and cement production.
Chinese inventiveness has been omnipresent over the last two months: from companies changing their business models overnight, remote working and learning, to a boom for Chinese medtech and health care platforms.
It will be interesting to observe the possible upcoming global growth of companies in the business of monitoring and tracking environmental data such as water quality, air pollution and now also online platforms tracking people’s movement.
The spread of the coronavirus shows the global mutual dependency we are all facing. In the struggle for developing a society that is robust in the era of climate — and nature — crisis, the coronavirus outbreak couldn’t have made it clearer that we will pay the highest of prices if we insist on a nation-centric vision in the wake of ecological challenges. In the absence of global leadership, this might still be a moment when China rises to the challenge.
Mark Greeven is a professor of innovation and strategy at the International Institute for Management Development. Rilito Povea is deputy director of WWF Norway. Christoph Nedopil is the director of the Green Belt and Road Initiative, International Institute of Green Finance.
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