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Think tank continues to help drive nation's green agenda

2022-06-15author:source:China Daily

The China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development is marking its 30th year of providing policy advice.

Horses on the streets to provide transportation downtown and cabbages piled high on street corners.

These are some of the things Martin Lees and his wife Christina remember from the time they spent in Beijing in the 1980s.

Now, shrouded by high-rise buildings and bustling with an endless stream of cars, the capital has said farewell to those scenes, which locals are keenly aware were features of the past, of an underdeveloped city and country.

Cabbages were a dominant winter vegetable for many families in northern China. They showed up at the dinner table day after day, with the only change being how they had been cooked.

Recalling his time in China, Lees, former secretary-general of the Club of Rome-an informal gathering of influential intellectuals who discuss pressing global issues-was filled with emotion.

He has many reasons to be proud of the changes as he was part of an international team that still injects momentum into China's environmental progress by contributing suggestions about developments to the government, often directly to the central leadership.

The 80-year-old was one of the initiators of the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development, aka the CCICED, in 1992. He served three five-year terms as a member of the high-level think tank that reports to the government. The council is now chaired by Vice-Premier Han Zheng.

Three decades have passed since then, and the country has not only seen its economy boom, but also made significant environmental progress.

From 2013 to last year, national GDP rose by 94 percent, while the number of cars on the nation's roads soared by 150 percent, according to the Chinese Academy of Environmental Planning.

Despite those developments, energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP fell by 16 percent and 22 percent, respectively.

Though launched to learn from the experiences of other countries, the council has also developed into a platform that exports ideas about China's environmental policies.

Martin Lees

The CITIC Tower, Beijing's tallest building is seen in clear weather, last month. WU LUPING/FOR CHINA DAILY

Learning from mistakes

The CCICED's founding was not a sudden decision taken by top officials. Rather, it was the result of a carefully considered process in which the leadership was involved.

The body was designed to move the economy onto a more environmentally friendly and sustainable path, Lees said, adding that the top leaders were anxious to learn from foreign experiences, at least at that time, from the 1980s onward.

"They didn't want to make the same mistakes that other countries had made. They wanted to learn from the successes and failures of other countries, and then they considered very carefully how relevant that experience was to them," he said.

"That's very unusual. I've worked internationally for 50 years, and most governments don't bother to listen to other people, but China's leaders were very open, consistent with their commitment to China's development through reform and opening-up."

In 1988, in the lead-up to the council's establishment, Lees organized a group of international experts to meet with senior officials, including Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng.

They met with Deng for two hours, and a major theme of the discussion was the integration of the environment and development, he recalled.

"China's leaders understood right from the beginning that they would ultimately have to find a way to combine those two critical aspects of policy," he said, adding that over 30 years, the council has provided suggestions related to China's environment policies.

Now, China's population numbers more than 1.4 billion.

Lees said another reason the leadership launched the CCICED was that it understood that environmental and climate problems are not simply national but international challenges.

"They wanted to have an international framework in which they could discuss and understand the global implications of what China does and the implications of what other people do for China," he said.

"I think that attitude is still true today, although China's position has changed tremendously."

In the early days, Chinese people had very little experience of working with foreigners, which posed challenges for Lees.

However, the council provided a framework and a process in which the foreign and Chinese members and advisers met for years, so they "developed really strong personal relations of mutual trust". This meant they told each other the truth, so the work was based on highly realistic analyses, he said.

Lees once proposed a program to develop China's environmental protection industry, but when he mentioned the concept, it was so alien to local officials that they didn't understand it. Later, a conference was held to discuss how to organize and manage the country's environmental protection sector. The suggestions made were then included in the 10th Five-Year Plan (2001-05) and are now a major source of employment and growth.

"I think that, frankly, was a very concrete step in this framework that made a difference," he said. In the council, each individual working group works on concrete problems and then produces specific proposals for changes in policy and strategy. They then have the privilege of presenting their suggestions to the leadership each year, he added.

As a platform for high-level dialogue on the environment and development between China and the world, the CCICED has so far invited more than 1,000 experts from both home and abroad to participate in more than 100 research programs, the council said. Overall, these programs have advanced almost 300 policy suggestions.

Compared with similar mechanisms, the council not only has the longest history but also is the most high-profile and influential body.


Evolving with the times

Zhang Jianyu, executive director of the BRI Green Development Institute and a special adviser to the council, has worked with the CCICED for 17 years. "China was still in the process of learning from the world," he said, referring to the council's early days.

At that stage, the CCICED was in a position to offer advice, he said. For example, climate change was one of the issues on which it exerted great influence.

In 1997, the Kyoto Protocol, the first major global agreement on the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions, was signed. In 2001, the United States withdrew from the protocol.

However, during the initial five years, the council's foreign members and advisers mentioned climate change frequently on many occasions, which helped China's leaders recognize and attach importance to the issue, Zhang said.

Rather than influencing specific government policies, the frequent comments sent a signal that the international community was treating global warming as a real issue, and the world also expected China to treat it seriously, he added.

By 2005, when he started working with the council, it had entered a new stage that featured cooperation between Chinese and foreign experts to seek ways of safeguarding the country's environmental progress, Zhang said. Essentially, Chinese experts started working in equal positions to their foreign counterparts in the council.

As China forges ahead with its own development path, the council has adopted the role of offering insights on whether certain policies are heading in the right direction and if they are really a priority in international interests, he added.

"Former premier Wen Jiabao said that the CCICED's operations will not cease until China's environmental problems have been solved," he said.

"However, the economic, trade and political situations confronting China are changing, and the council's ultimate goal is always to tackle the country's environmental problems."

Initially, the council's core task was to target domestic problems, but the focus has altered in accordance with changes in situations, he said.

For example, the rise in imports has seen China consuming large numbers of commodities, including palm oil, from other countries. The country is expected to become increasingly dependent on imports of primary products, such as minerals, so it has to take the environmental impact on other countries into consideration, he added.

Against this backdrop, Zhang said the environment and trade have been in the council's research spotlight for some time, and it has been working on ways to regulate them.

Impact and future

Dimitri de Boer, chief China representative of the environmental law organization ClientEarth and also a special adviser to the CCICED, said the council is unique.

He has "never come across any organization that is as impactful in terms of environment and development issues", he said.

"Developed countries don't have these kinds of things because they think they know it all. They don't think China can teach them very much."

He added that he has found that the CCICED increasingly plays a role in helping China communicate its environmental policies to other countries.

Through the council, other countries will actually learn about, make reference to and even use China's environmental policies themselves, according to De Boer.

"It's not really happening yet, but I think it will-maybe in another five to 10 years," he said.

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