US and China Talk Environment, Not Just Trade

Political tensions between the United States and China have diverted attention away from the progress being made on a vitally important but little-known Chinese-American dialogue. At a meeting last March in Beijing, Vice President Al Gore and Premier Li Peng strongly endorsed the China-US Forum on Environment and Development, which focuses on harmonizing environmental protection and economic development.

A major concern is the environmental implications of China's rapid modernization, and how best to spur US-China efforts to address China's domestic environmental problems and their global impact. Pollution, inefficient energy use, and ecological decline threaten to slow the pace of China's progress and undermine social and economic gains.

After the March meeting, news media coverage in the US focused mainly on disagreements that surfaced over the pace of Chinese greenhouse gas reductions. Press coverage in China was positive and extensive. Yet both sides sought to raise the level of dialogue above the plateau of hostile rhetoric. The vice president's visit highlighted the mutual advantages of addressing a critically important subject in new ways.

Positive trends are seldom acknowledged outside China. The country is now dealing more effectively with pollution and resource conservation problems through pollution-control regulations, environmental planning, and economic incentives. The extent to which China, with its 1.2 billion people, copes successfully with the enormous environmental impacts of its economic growth bears directly on prospects for achieving global environmental sustainability.

Mutual interests

The Environment and Development Forum is addressing four key areas of mutual interest: energy efficiency, environmental policy development, science and technology, and opportunities for promoting US pollution-control technologies. There is a solid foundation for developing strategies in these and other areas to help sustain China's economic growth while maintaining essential environmental services and amenities. More than 30 agreements relating to the environment and sustainable development, involving 10 US agencies, have promoted bilateral cooperation between the US and China in diverse fields since the early 1980s.

This is an especially opportune time to move forward with an expanded bilateral dialogue on strategies for enhancing China's environmental sustainability. As the country's market economy spurts forward, it is clear in China and abroad that economic growth, ecological integrity, and society's well-being are interrelated and can only be sustained with realistic, market-responsive environmental protection and resource-conservation policies. China must take steps to improve health and environmental protection in order to maintain its spectacular pace of economic growth.

China knows this, and it supports bilateral environmental programs that address long-term issues. Ongoing programs enhance scientific and technical cooperation in areas such as hydrology, coastal zone management, endangered species protection, marine pollution control, and environmental health. Now, expanded efforts in environmental planning and policy development, institution-building, education and training, and habitat and biodiversity conservation are needed.

Program development and personnel training in China and abroad have been impressive, and this can strengthen ongoing work. World Bank support, for example, facilitates development of a database to help launch a national pollution fine system that initially will be applied in large state-owned industries and later expanded to smaller private and semi-private establishments.

Another encouraging sign is the growing number of well-trained environmental economists, scientists, engineers, and ecologists in China working in government agencies and research organizations, some with foreign ties. China's approval of a nongovernmental "friends of nature" group, which draws attention to the fate of rare and endangered species, is a clear sign of more enlightened government attitudes. Hundreds of Chinese environmental scientists, engineers, and managers living overseas also are eager to help China solve its environmental problems.

Compare and contrast

International dialogue on the human and ecological implications of global environmental change is mired in endless, seemingly inconclusive negotiations on the rights and responsibilities of poor and rich countries, and how best to shape a realistic framework for international environmental policy development. Little real progress has been made in complex negotiations on such problems as deforestation, biodiversity preservation, climate change, and migratory fisheries.

These highly politicized negotiations focus mainly on narrow technical issues. Despite the formation of new institutions such as the Global Environmental Facility, the self-congratulatory rhetoric on "sustainable development" that emerged from the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro has yet to be translated into workable policies.

A well-publicized US-China declaration of commitment to the sustainable environmental development of both countries could energize global efforts to organize and coordinate a viable approach to international environmental governance in areas such as sustainable forestry and toxic chemicals. US-China cooperation in this critical task can set a shining example for other countries as the millennium dawns.

* Baruch Boxer is a professor of geography and environmental sciences at Rutgers University and a visiting scholar at Resources for the Future in Washington.

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