18 Oct 2017 Featured Article Sustainable Development Goals

The Good News | Erik's Editorial on China's Success

Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment

In the story of the Chinese zodiac, the rooster is the tenth animal to cross the river and the Jade Emperor’s finish line. But it did not cross alone. The rooster discovered a raft, and invited the goat and the monkey to join him on the crossing. The goat and the monkey helped clear the weeds, and navigate the little raft toward the opposite bank. With teamwork, they arrived together. The Jade Emperor was pleased with their work, and gave them all a year on the zodiac.

As we enter into the Year of the Rooster, humans are in our own race, an environmental one. The Year of the Goat and the Year of the Monkey have just passed, and we have relied on the good work over these last two years to push us further across the river.

This is global race. All of us are affected by a changing climate and a worsening environment. Many countries have rose to the challenge. But China is among those whose leadership has been most vital in this struggle.

If China’s actions during the Year of the Goat and the Year of the Monkey are any indication, the Year of the Rooster can potentially bring us farther than ever before.

Some of China’s most consequential efforts were those on the international stage. By signing and ratifying the most important environmental treaties of the modern era, China led other countries to do the same.

The Paris Agreement on Climate Change is the most famous, of course. But China also ratified lesser-known but just as critical environmental pacts. The Minamata Convention, which China ratified in August last year, will prevent harmful industrial mercury pollutants from causing birth defects and illness. In October, China helped achieve the Kigali Amendment, which will phase out powerful greenhouse gases used in air conditioners and refrigerators. Earlier in 2016, China ratified the Nagoya Protocol, which will help protect biodiversity.

Also on the international stage, China has committed to greening its Belt and Road Initiative and made green finance a priority for the G20, both efforts that UN Environment is actively supporting. And then there was President Xi’s robust defence of the fight against climate change in Davos.

All of this in only two years. Alone, these actions are an enormous help to the environmental movement.

But China has done even more domestically.

Many of China’s cities suffer debilitating air pollution. Bad air causes massive health problems and trillions of dollars to be lost from the economy worldwide. Massive efforts have begun to address this, including investing over $360 billion in renewable energy. Plans for new coal plants have been scrapped. And blacklists of polluters are being drawn up, to target those who would break the law.

And those who do break the law will receive heavy penalties for pollution - at provincial, municipal and county levels. Environmental courts have been hearing more cases, and providing the legal means to ensure a healthy environment.

In a carrot and stick approach, you must not forget the carrot. So China has been promoting recycling and electric vehicle programs across the country. In Beijing and Shanghai, recycling systems are rolling out that will target e-waste and batteries. In Shenzhen, authorities have been aggressively promoting a switch to electric taxis that will allow residents to breathe easier.

While the well-being of people has been a top priority, China has also become a champion of wildlife. Long a destination for illicit ivory, China announced that the ivory trade will be banned by the end of this year. Air China has announced a ban on transporting shark fins, a move we hope to see other carriers follow. These efforts have been coupled with massive public awareness campaigns. Beijing International Airport generously partnered with UN Environment to host an exhibit of our Wild for Life campaign, featuring Goodwill Ambassador Li Bingbing. It’s a testament to the changing attitudes in China that the business would commit resources worth almost $12 million to protect some of the most vulnerable species on the planet.

In Davos, President Xi said, “It is important to protect the environment while pursuing economic and social progress.” What we have seen over the last two years in China is an unprecedented effort to do this.

But the race is not nearly over. We are still crossing the river, and we may be in the most dangerous part. If we think we’ve done enough to coast the rest of the way, we will be overwhelmed. The Year of the Rooster is an opportunity to add to the combined efforts of the Year of the Goat and Year of the Monkey to push us out of danger and further toward the finish line.

Erik Solheim, Executive Director, UN Environment