A Sustainable Future Relies on US-China Collaboration

A longer version of today’s blog was also published in the Huffington Post.

Hong Kong

View of the Hong Kong harbour and Kowloon from Victoria Peak. (© Adam Korzekwa)

The world is sitting on a consumption time bomb. More consumers, higher consumption and more material intensity, coupled with diminishing supplies of natural capital, add up to a planet that is dangerously overspent and veering towards ecological bankruptcy in the not-too-distant future.

China and the United States — the two largest consuming nations with combined GDPs comprising one-third of global Gross Domestic Product — find themselves at the center of a potential catastrophe, in which human demand outspends Earth’s supplies.

The two nations consume one-quarter of the world’s natural gas, one-third of global oil production and produce nearly two-thirds of the world’s coal. The two nations also are the planet’s largest carbon dioxide emitters, jointly releasing nearly half of the world total each year.

As the problem worsens and threatens the sustainability of our planet, business-as-usual scenarios are insufficient to address the acute challenges that both nations, as well as the community of nations, will face in years ahead.

As discussed in a major new report: U.S.-China 2022: Economic Relations in the Next Ten Years, released this week by the China-United States Exchange Foundation, and to which I contributed, only through massive collaboration and cooperation can we chart a sustainable and positive path forward.

A 2012 assessment commissioned by 20 governments, the Climate Vulnerability Monitor, calculated that 5 million deaths occur each year from air pollution, hunger and disease as a result of climate change and carbon-intensive economies. That toll will rise significantly if current patterns of fossil fuel use continue.

Global growth in energy and consumer demand is driving much of this change. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) projects that the global middle class will skyrocket 250% to five billion people by 2030, with almost 90% of that growth coming from the Asia-Pacific region. Consumption in emerging markets is expected to rise from US$12 trillion in 2010 to US$30 trillion by 2025. These new consumers will move from bulk, unbranded products to highly processed and packaged goods.

China’s urban transformation and rising middle class will play a significant role in these changes. In 20 years, China’s cities will have added 350 million people, more than the entire population of the United States today. By 2025, China will have 221 cities with 1 million-plus inhabitants — compared with 35 cities of this size in Europe today. The environmental ramifications of this unprecedented demographic shift will be severe.

China Water Program

Local community members in China’s Sichuan province create awareness about freshwater conservation. (© Conservation International)

Consequences are already being seen in the agricultural heartlands of both the United States and China, gripped by multi-year droughts. China has one-fifth of the world’s population, but just 7% of arable land, further shrinking as urbanization converts nearly 9 million more hectares of farmland per decade.

The United States and China, although at different stages with their respective economic and environmental challenges, are each increasingly vulnerable to resource scarcity, from minerals to water to food to the biodiversity that fuels science, medicine and innovation. Climate destabilization is also a shared threat, with drought, floods, coastal storms, wildfires and other extreme weather occurring with alarming intensity and frequency. Both nations also have extensive supply chains operating in and withdrawing significant resources from other megadiverse countries, but neither nation will prosper in the long term if the other exhausts these critical supplies.

The costs and consequences of inaction are now undeniably immense and clearly indicate that business-as-usual is driving the global economy, society, humanity and the biosphere towards premature morbidity and mortality. A growing number of statesmen, corporate and civic leaders, and scientific experts have been loud and clear in their warnings: Humanity has the next 10 years, starting right now, to take and make transformational changes that put the global economy on a path consistent with keeping temperature rise below 2℃, the level above which scientists almost universally warn that impacts will be devastating.

The fundamental sustainability challenge for both nations is to sustain growth while maintaining, not diminishing or depleting, natural capital productivity and resilience. Together, we must account for, value and protect our natural factories and treasuries, so that they continue to generate the renewable goods and ecosystem services that our societies, families and businesses all depend upon to thrive.

Joint initiatives and collaboration are in both of our nations’ enlightened self-interest to aid with immediate and sustained economic and environmental gains, as well as long-term well-being and prosperity of our people. I see at least four key areas where the United States and China can and should work together to help deliver large-scale sustainability gains for themselves and for their trading partners.

  1. joint leadership in addressing global challenges, such as climate change and the loss of biodiversity, ecosystem health and vitality caused by unsustainable development

  2. policies to support as collaborative innovation networks to stimulate radical innovations in sustainability, particularly since the United States and China account for 50 to 60% of global research and development

  3. increased adoption of advanced Feed-In Tariff (FIT) performance payments to align good governance, reduce carbon emissions and spur markets toward adopting zero and near-zero emission power options such as solar, wind, geothermal, biowastes and small-scale hydro

  4. commitment to principles of ‘No Net Biodiversity Loss’ or ‘Net Positive Impact’ as normal business practice to avoid and mitigate damage, together with pro-biodiversity investment, to compensate for adverse impacts that cannot be avoided

Together, joint collaborations and cooperative partnerships between China and the United States, demonstrating leadership in markets and statesmanship in governance, offer our respective countries, the global community of nations and the planet’s biosphere a very hopeful, positive way forward. I believe strongly in this vision and know that we can make it reality if we “progress together, hand in hand,” as a wise Chinese strategist once wrote. We must. Humanity’s health and well-being hang in the balance.

Peter Seligmann is the chairman and CEO of Conservation International.

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