China’s chance to set a green global ex­am­ple

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - BUSINESS VIEWS - DANIEL NY­BERG The au­thor is a pro­fes­sor of sus­tain­abil­ity at Not­ting­ham Univer­sity Busi­ness School. The views do not nec­es­sar­ily re­flect those of China Daily.

China con­spic­u­ously stepped up its green rhetoric in the lat­ter half of this year. Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping's pledge that the coun­try would never pur­sue short-term eco­nomic growth at the ex­pense of en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion was per­haps the clear­est ex­am­ple of this sig­nif­i­cant shift in tone.

World En­vi­ron­ment Day in June co­in­cided with of­fi­cial con­fir­ma­tion that air pol­lu­tion in Bei­jing had reached “very un­healthy” lev­els. The Min­istry of En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion's theme of “Breath­ing and work­ing to­gether” sat un­easily with the all­too-fa­mil­iar im­ages of a smog-in­duced haze hang­ing over the cap­i­tal.

The gov­ern­ment de­scribed the sit­u­a­tion as grim. The min­istry's an­nual re­port re­vealed that last year well over half the ground­wa­ter in 198 cities was “bad” or “ex­tremely bad”, more than 30 per cent of ma­jor rivers were “pol­luted” or “se­ri­ously pol­luted” and just 27 of 113 key cities had air of ac­cept­able qual­ity.

There re­mains an in­escapable con­vic­tion, par­tic­u­larly in the West, that this has been al­lowed to hap­pen and that China is now pay­ing the toxic price for sac­ri­fic­ing na­ture on the al­tar of eco­nomic growth. Ac­cord­ingly, many Western com­men­ta­tors have ex­pressed the hope that an ad­mis­sion of past mis­takes will sig­nal pos­i­tive po­lit­i­cal ac­tion.

Con­certed and trans­par­ent ef­forts to solve the prob­lem would cer­tainly have the most far-reach­ing im­pli­ca­tions. China it­self would be the ob­vi­ous and prin­ci­pal ben­e­fi­ciary, but the en­dur­ing suc­cess of any ini­tia­tive would un­doubt­edly in­flu­ence the rest of the world — from the de­vel­op­ing na­tions that in­creas­ingly fol­low China's lead to the es­tab­lished eco­nomic and in­dus­trial pow­er­houses that in­spired the dragon's rise.

Yet in seek­ing to re­al­ize the dream of a “beau­ti­ful China”, as first es­poused at the 18th Na­tional Congress last year, pol­i­cy­mak­ers and busi­nesses alike would do well to note that it is all too easy to pa­rade one's green cre­den­tials while fail­ing to jus­tify them. We know this only too well in the West, where the ever-in­ten­si­fy­ing in­cor­po­ra­tion of the en­vi­ron­ment within mar­ket cap­i­tal­ism has served al­most ex­clu­sively to make the for­mer a profit-gen­er­at­ing slave to the lat­ter.

Visit the home­pages of any ma­jor or­ga­ni­za­tion and you are guar­an­teed to dis­cover pro-en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism to the fore. Coal, con­struc­tion, cola, cor­po­rate bank­ing — ev­ery sec­tor feels com­pelled to con­cede the im­por­tance of sus­tain­abil­ity. This is a box that sim­ply has to be ticked.

It may seem rea­son­able to view this as a thor­oughly well-in­ten­tioned re­sponse to cli­mate change, de­for­esta­tion, de­clin­ing bio­di­ver­sity and sim­i­lar con­cerns. How­ever, when we ex­am­ine the is­sue more closely we find mount­ing ev­i­dence of a fast-emerg­ing trend for the en­vi­ron­ment to be ac­corded a mar­ket worth and for cor­po­ra­tions to be seen as the cen­tral in­sti­tu­tions through which that worth can be main­tained.

In ef­fect, both the en­vi­ron­ment and the mar­ket are now ha­bit­u­ally treated as so­cial goods, and it fol­lows that the two will oc­ca­sion­ally have com­pet­ing in­ter­ests. The cru­cial ques­tion is which is likely to ben­e­fit and which is likely to suf­fer when, as must in­evitably be the case, com­pro­mise is re­quired.

A re­cent study by Not­ting­ham Univer­sity Busi­ness School shed fresh light on this ten­sion by in­ves­ti­gat­ing the sus­tain­abil­ity prac­tices of a num­ber of global com­pa­nies. In-depth in­ter­views with sus­tain­abil­ity man­agers and con­sul­tants re­vealed that many saw their roles as in­volv­ing not only an al­le­giance to their em­ploy­ers and share­hold­ers but also a con­cern for the en­vi­ron­ment and so­ci­ety.

Re­searchers also an­a­lyzed a va­ri­ety of rel­e­vant ma­te­rial, in­clud­ing cor­po­rate sus­tain­abil­ity re­ports, pol­icy doc­u­ments and state­ments re­lat­ing to carbon emis­sions. As has be­come al­most manda­tory, most of th­ese fea­tured im­ages of forests, oceans and land­scapes, as well as em­ploy­ees' tes­ti­mo­ni­als about the en­vi­ron­ment's sig­nif­i­cance in their per­sonal and pro­fes­sional lives.

But all of this is so much eco-friendly win­dow dress­ing. The study ex­posed the crush­ing ex­tent to which so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity plays sec­ond fid­dle to cor­po­rate pragmatism. Com­pa­nies and staff mem­bers may ex­press a keen and gen­uine in­ter­est in the en­vi­ron­ment, yet there re­mains an acute aware­ness of the con­straints — even the fu­til­ity — of chal­leng­ing suc­cess­ful busi­ness prac­tices li­able to in­ten­sify eco­log­i­cal degra­da­tion. As the di­rec­tor of one sus­tain­abil­ity con­sul­tancy ob­served: “It al­ways comes down to the op­ti­mum point. You want them to be as sus­tain­able as can be, but you don't want them to shut down their op­er­a­tion. There's no sim­ple path through this.”

More­over, com­pro­mise was shown to be at best a tem­po­rary res­o­lu­tion — one sub­ject to con­tin­ued crit­i­cism, adap­ta­tion and re­fine­ment. Thus the next step of­ten leads only to a new and “bet­ter” com­pro­mise or an out­right re­cast­ing of fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples. En­vi­ron­men­tal­ists' al­le­ga­tion that bio-fu­els cause de­for­esta­tion and food short­ages merely re­sulted in the pro­mo­tion of sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion bio-fu­els. A com­pany that set an “am­bi­tious” carbon emis­sions re­duc­tion tar­get of 40 per cent felt able to cau­tion in dispir­it­ingly short or­der that this would prove “dif­fi­cult to de­liver” be­cause of an ex­pan­sion in busi­ness.

There are oc­ca­sional win-win sit­u­a­tions. Some­times new green prod­ucts or ini­tia­tives cut costs or in­crease rev­enues, in which case the mar­ket is de­nied its tra­di­tional lop­sided vic­tory. Yet it is gen­er­ally ac­cepted that th­ese sce­nar­ios should be pur­sued only when the ben­e­fits to the mar­ket, not the ben­e­fits to the en­vi­ron­ment, can ul­ti­mately be guar­an­teed. The bot­tom line is still the pri­mary ob­jec­tive.

En­cour­ag­ingly, a no­tion at the center of nascent de­bate in the West is whether the mar­ket's ever-dis­tend­ing reach might be coun­tered by pro­tec­tion and con­ser­va­tion through leg­is­la­tion.

In New Zealand a river was re­cently rec­og­nized as a le­gal en­tity with the same rights and in­ter­ests en­joyed by a com­pany, while con­sti­tu­tional amend­ments in Bo­livia and Ecuador have in­cluded spe­cific rights for the en­vi­ron­ment. Re­gard­less of the even­tual out­comes, such fledg­ling ef­forts at least high­light a nascent so­cial ac­knowl­edg­ment of the need for civic con­trol over mar­ket cap­i­tal­ism's ex­cesses.

PANG LI / CHINA DAILY

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