China’s Environmental Awareness Grows with its Economy

Dan Mazmanian

  Dan Mazmanian
Dan Mazmanian
Having surpassed the United States as the country emitting the most total carbon dioxide, China’s growing demand for resources presents a major stumbling block in the world’s fight against global warming. Dan Dudek, China-based chief economist for Environmental Defense, and Dan Mazmanian, USC Professor & former dean of the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, recently spoke with VerdeXchange News about their experiences with the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development—a unique advisory institution with the ear of the Chinese Premier.


The two of you serve on the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development. What is the mission and purpose of the committee?

Dan Dudek: CCICED is an international advisory body. It has a council composed of roughly 20 foreigners and 20 Chinese. Many of them are former or current sitting environment ministers, for example: the minister of environment of Sweden, Parliament members from Norway, the current and former heads of the United Nations Environment Program, myself, and 20 high-level Chinese, many of them from prestigious scientific academies in China. The institution is unique in that it is the only high-level channel for direct delivery of environmental advice to the senior leadership in China. Each year in November the council meets personally with the Chinese premier, usually for several hours.

Zeng Peiyan, the vice premier responsible for environment, chairs the council’s annual general meeting. The secretariat for CCICED is provided by the State Environmental Protection Administration, and its membership and function is interministerial, so it has representation from all of the key government agencies.

Dan Mazmanian: As a deliberative public policy institution, I don’t think it has any analogue. For instance, there aren’t any international environmental leaders solicited for advice by George Bush.

DD: It’s a tremendous opportunity. Each year, they set up a group of task forces. They have a functional focus. For example, in the two years in which Dan Mazmanian and myself served, there were task forces on environmental governance, ecological compensation, and one that looked at the overall performance of CCICED itself.

Why was CCICED created by the Chinese government? What is its mission and purpose?

DD: The basic mission was to bring international experience to bear on Chinese environmental problems. China has always been a nation interested in finding the best experience, strategy, and opportunities. The challenge has been transplanting the best practices of foreign origin. CCICED is a unique amalgam—foreign experts bring their experience, work directly with their counterparts with expertise in China, and shape the contexts of these experiences into implementable recommendations for the premier.

DM: What I found to be extraordinary is that this was a tri-part committee: Chinese experts and officials, international environmental experts (the category I was in), and international environmental leaders (which includes Dan Dudek). Having all three groups sit down together and work through these issues made this a unique process. It’s not just the Chinese seeking advice from the international community; they’ve invited critical advocates of environmental policy to the table.

How has the agenda of CCICED changed over the years?

DD: It’s 15 years old; it’s in its fourth phase now. It has evolved the same way as China in that time frame. 15 years ago China was asking, “How are we going to find the money to fund environmental protection when our domestic needs for economic growth and development are so dramatic?”

It remains a question today, with 700 million people living in the countryside throughout China, with large numbers of people living below the poverty line. A thousand dollars a year per capita is still a good living in China—by global standards that is inadequate.

The fundamentals of getting any kind of environmental infrastructure in China—the basic laws, the legal strategy, the focus of initial priorities—were the issues that dominated the agenda 15 years ago. Now, China’s discourse on the subject is saying, “We have built some machinery; we have some institutions; we have laws; we have a plethora of regulations; we have statements by senior leaders about where they would like to see things go; but our environmental problems continue to get worse.” So they are asking, “What are the root issues, what are the problems here? What is it that we have not paid attention to?” The agenda is now much more focused on the mechanics of having its institutions be coordinated, consistent, comprehensive, and to see that they are providing polluters with a coherent signal that says, “Emissions must go down.”

Prof. Mazmanian, you’ve been studying environmental issues at the University of Michigan and USC for decades, researching environmental policy and public management. There are 1.2 to 1.3 billion people in China, and an estimated 300 million are moving from rural habitats into cities in the next 10–20 years. The impacts and trends are obvious in terms of carbon emissions and pollution. What does a scholar offer the Chinese in the way of solutions to such challenges?

DM: The international environmental advocates and scholars on the task force brought to the discussion a great deal of policy and implementation knowledge gleaned from the quarter century of experience in Europe, Japan, and the United States. The central message conveyed, I believe, was the environmental problems could not be solved by classic “command and control” or “central control” alone, but only through an extensive process of public engagement and public-private cooperation. The message reinforced that when you release the energies of capitalism and economic development across the land, you diminish the ability of the government to impose its will through regulation, which the Chinese have already begun to appreciate. You need to reinvent your institutions of governance to operate in a more participatory manner.

A recent email blast from Steve Westly, the former state controller, who is now managing a clean tech fund, notes: “There are 300 skyscrapers in New York, and over 3,000 in Shanghai alone. China presents a stunning paradox as the nation with the third largest economy in the world, yet about to surpass the United States as the world’s biggest polluter.” Working from your platform at CCICED and working with leaders such as Zeng Peiyan, how can China and the United States reduce pollution?

DD: The number one thing on the agenda is to have the United States get up off the couch, stop being the global couch potato in relation to dealing with greenhouse gases, and demonstrate a little bit of resolve and courage, as has been done in California. If the richest nation in the world cannot bring itself to actually deal with greenhouse gases, how can we expect the Chinese to do it, whose per capita emissions pale in comparison to those in the United States?

DM: The annual per capita emissions of C02 is about 24.5 tons per person in the United States and 3.9 tons per person in China. Therefore, while our aggregate national emissions is about the same today, the dramatic difference in individual level emissions places us in very different light.

New research asserts that as much as 25 percent of the pollution over Los Angeles may be coming directly from China; and this pollution is only going to increase. How will CARB implement AB 32 if they can’t regulate or collaborate with China on managing the reach of their pollution?

DM: A point well taken. CARB lacks the authority to regulate emitters beyond its borders (and even some within). Absent an international body that can actually regulate across borders, we need to emphasize the things we can do, which is to find ways of sharing our emission reducing technology and investment capital with the Chinese. It is our responsibility, as Dan Dudek just mentioned, to show leadership in sharing and finding win-win strategies between the two of nations if we expect to see a reduction in their emissions. It’s in our interest to be magnanimous. It’s in our interest to invest in new technology. It’s in our interest to bring them into the global community, and we can’t do that without showing leadership.

What CCICED policy recommendations have been the most valuable to Chinese leaders and environmental managers?

DD: I talked about the importance of connecting the hip bone to the thigh bone, in relation to how policy functions and operates. One of the things that I had in mind was the financial reality that companies face in relation to complying with laws. If on one hand you have the government saying, “You must do what I say in terms of controlling emissions,” and on the other hand the law says that the maximum penalty for violating the regulations under the Chinese Clean Air Act is the equivalent of $25,000, the real message that you’re sending companies is, “Well, it’s really not all that important, and quite frankly, you don’t have to spend all that much time and attention.” $25,000 is an amazingly modest sum when we are thinking about emission control.

One of the recommendations that we made is that they need to reform the penalty structure in China so it includes real financial consequences. When we met with the premier last November and gave him that recommendation, he made a long statement about how companies that did not comply must face real consequences. It was subsequently announced this past March in a statement from the chairman of the National People’s Congress Committee on Natural Resources and Environment that there are penalty reform proposals pending in the National People’s Congress.

Dan Mazmanian, you have agreed to attend and participate in the GreenXchange Xpo conference in Los Angeles on December 10 and 11—an invitational gathering of public, private, and NGO leaders meeting to discuss the realities of shaping the green world and connecting the green dots for global buyers and vendors of green innovation. Why are you traveling from China to contribute to such an event, and what do you hope to gain from your attendance?

DM: What motivates me is that the severity of our environmental problems is growing exponentially and globally while the solutions curve is moving along on a linear path. We have to accelerate progress on the solutions front if emissions are going to be curbed and harms avoided. And the quickest way to accomplish this is focusing the energies and entrepreneurial spirit of the private sector through the kinds of gatherings you’re imagining, bringing together private sector investment capital, the spirit and dedication of environmental NGOs, and government leaders, in a collaborative effort in bringing about a post fossil fuels based and more sustainable civilization.

Dan Dudek, you will be participating on a GreenXchange Conference panel that will be addressing ‘cap and trade’ as a strategy for leveling the energy playing field. What attracts you to this particular aspect of the climate change/green tech agenda?

DD: I think that the single most powerful force that I’m aware of, in terms of motivating and driving human behavior, has been the incentives that are unleashed by markets, the opportunity for people to, both individually and collectively, improve their lives. The idea of unleashing markets to solve environmental problems is one which has increasingly taken root around the world. It’s becoming central to the debate about which technologies will succeed and fly, how successful they’ll be, and actually grappling with fairly fundamental problems involving what the quality of life will be for our children and their children.