Erik Solheim, former UndersecretaryUN General and Presidentdente do Green Belt and Road Institute, noted a significant change of power in the global actionbal about the climate throughout the last decade. Supported by a extensive career dedicated to environmental protection, he has been examining the emergence of a new scenario in environmental geopolitics, with China emerging as a green leader. In an exclusive interviewsiva to reporters Peng Jiawei and Li Xiaoyang from Beijing Review, Solheim shared his vision on changes in development strategies China’s growth, as well as in the evolution of its role in global environmental governance. Next, edited excerpts from Solheim’s remarks.

From speed to sustainability – It may be quite hard to imagine for young Chinese people, but in 1984, when I first visited China, there were no skyscrapers, few private cars and only one subway line on the Chinese mainland.

It was a time when China was still in the early stages of Reform and Opening-up and was actively exploring its own path towards modernization. All the focus was on economic development and creating a huge middle class. And the country succeeded in all these endeavors. China miraculously lifted more people out of poverty than any nation in human history, on a massive scale and at an unprecedented speed. This is undoubtedly a fantastic achievement.

But it came at a high price – pollution. In the early days of economic reform, there was little concern for nature. And when I spoke to Chinese people during the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, I praised them for being so well off compared to their parents and grandparents. But people always replied: “Yes, but I would like to see the sun” or “I don’t want to breathe smoke anymore”.

That was 15 years ago. However, over the last decade, things have completely reversed. There has been a shift in focus in China from growing
cement for high quality growth, speed, numbers and high growth rates for environmental protection and personal well-being.

The change was driven primarily by three factors. First, there was a greater awareness among the general public about environmental protection. Second, it required political leadership with a clear vision and determination to promote sustainability. Lastly, and equally important, it was necessary to view this as a business opportunity, because only businesses can scale transformation.

It started as a national war on pollution. But now the country’s green development has evolved, and it is no longer just about cleaning the air and water, but also about mitigating climate change, transitioning to renewable energy and protecting biodiversity.

Nuorilang Waterfall in Jiuzhaigou National Park of Sichuan Province. (China Today Magazine)

Taking the lead – No one can copy another country’s environmental strategies, but we can learn from them. Ten years ago, Europe was well ahead of the curve on climate change. If someone had asked me back then where the best green practices were, I would have pointed to Brussels, Berlin and Paris. But now Chinese cities are ahead of Europe in all these aspects.

China is well ahead of Europe in green technologies. The country accounts for about 60% of the world’s green technology. About 80% to 90% of the world’s solar energy is produced in China. What is often overlooked, and worth highlighting, is that China is also leading a global revolution in ecological conservation.

I especially recommend that countries seeking sustainable solutions look to China, where many of the most industrially developed and densely populated cities are concentrated around the Yangtze River Delta and the Pearl River Delta.

These industrial hubs are the most challenging areas for green strategies to be implemented. But China has managed to reimagine these cities as complex ecosystems, in which urban landscapes, nature and human communities come together to create sustainable urban spaces. This is something other parts of the world could learn from.

One example is Xiamen, a coastal city in Fujian Province, in the southeast of the country. I visited the place in April last year. It is not as well-known globally as Shanghai and Beijing, but I confess that I had no idea that it was such a beautiful, modern and liveable city.

I was invited to work with a group of researchers at Xiamen University on the topic of ocean pollution. And I was very impressed by the university, I think it’s the most beautiful one I’ve ever visited in my life. It has a huge botanical garden, a fusion of ancient architecture and modern complexes, a fantastic view of the ocean, and a huge expanse of cultivated land.

An 18-minute drive from the university is Yundang Lake, once a port connected to the sea. If you go back a few decades to the 1970s, when the city was reclaiming land from the sea, the lake was an inland body of water into which tons of untreated sewage and industrial waste were dumped.

Beginning in the mid-1980s, efforts were made to restore the lake to its former state. The city committed to cleaning up the pollution and protecting the mangrove-dotted islands in the middle of the lake, where thousands of herons now reside. Today, it is a beautiful lake and a magnificent example of how polluted bodies of water can be fully restored.

In addition to repairing damaged ecosystems in urban areas, China has also committed to building a system of national parks to protect wildlife and natural landscapes.

The concept of a national park is an American innovation. Theodore Roosevelt, US president from 1901 to 1909, famously declared that there was nothing quite as American as a national park. But China has now taken the lead by creating one of the world’s largest national park systems, covering not only its vast and sparsely populated western region but the entire country.

As a late adopter in the ecological protection arena, China has learned a lot from the West. But now it is in a position to teach the rest of the world how to balance economic growth with sustainability goals. The idea is to continue learning from each other.

Cooperation versus competition – Competition has long been seen as an obstacle to achieving environmental goals. But the truth is that we need competition as much as cooperation.

Let’s take electric vehicles (EVs) as an example. Chinese EV companies are expanding into global markets at an impressive rate, with BYD leading the way. Their emergence as strong new competitors has sent a worrying message to Volkswagen, General Motors, Toyota and other traditional auto companies, forcing them to accelerate their EV development. In this sense, competition could act as a catalyst for the global transition to clean energy.

But we also need cooperation and shared rules, so that we can all benefit from fair competition.

Every nation wants to protect its vital economic interests, such as domestic employment and domestic industries. As Chinese companies venture abroad into new markets, they should also invest more in building manufacturing hubs overseas. BYD, for example, is building an EV factory in Brazil. The project not only boosts BYD’s globalization drive, but also creates job opportunities and boosts local industries.

In today’s world, collaboration is a must. The United States wants to accelerate the growth of its solar energy sector. However, there is no way to do this without cooperation with China, which is the world’s largest producer of solar panels. Playing defensively against China’s dominance
in renewable energy supply chains only increases the risk of slowing the pace of their own energy transition.

Therefore, we must facilitate dialogue between government authorities and businesses in China and elsewhere in the world, so that fair competition can move us all towards a net-zero emissions future more quickly.

A train travels along the China-built Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway during an operational test near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Oct. 13, 2016. (China Today Magazine)

From brown partnerships to green investment – There has been a stark change of direction in China’s outward investment, reflecting a broader repositioning of the country in global energy projects. In the early days of the Belt and Road Initiative (proposed by China in 2013 to foster connectivity along and beyond the regions covered by the ancient Silk Road), China engaged in a series of “brown” projects – projects aimed at helping participating countries build oil, gas and coal infrastructure. In September 2021, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared at the UN General Assembly that China would no longer build new coal-fired power projects abroad. Two years later, the initiative has become one of the main vehicles for global green investment.

What this means is that China has begun investing in solar and wind power projects in Ethiopia, Kenya, Vietnam and Indonesia. China and Indonesia, for example, recently struck a $54 billion deal that directs Chinese investment into solar power production in Indonesia. As the world’s fourth most populous country, Indonesia has to deal with a colossal demand for energy. So this is a deal of crucial importance.

China is also committed to building green public transport along the Belt and Road Initiative. Examples include the China-Laos Railway, the Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway in Kenya, the Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway in Northeast Africa (Horn of Africa), and, more recently, the Jakarta-Bandung High-Speed ​​Railway in Indonesia.

Green operation is a common thread among these rail projects, which have all been carefully designed to minimize
environmental impact. These new rail lines also boost economic development on these routes, creating jobs for the local workforce and increasing trade and connectivity.

From linear to circular – If you ask me where China could improve, I would really encourage a more circular economy. This is a task that needs to be taken on not just by China, but by the entire world.

Currently, 99% of all clothing produced on the planet is simply thrown away after a period of use. But we can start recycling the cotton in these clothes. In Bangladesh, experiments are underway with circular fabric use. But this is not enough. Other countries should also join in on this kind of action.

Digital devices are evolving at an ever-increasing pace. In this never-ending quest for the latest technology, we have become accustomed to buying new mobile phones on a regular basis, leaving our old ones to rust on the shelves. In a circular economy, however, there is nothing about these digital products that cannot be recycled.

If we invest effort in these small things in our daily lives, we won’t need to extract as many resources from nature as we do today. Moving towards a circular economy, where all electronic, plastic and clothing waste is recycled, offers enormous opportunities. And I believe that Chinese companies, as they have done in the past, can lead the world in the race towards a circular future.

This text was originally published in China Hoje magazine. Click here, subscribe to our community, receive a free digital subscription and have access to the full content.


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