Alumni Thought Piece: Sustainability in China

The global environment is arguably the defining issue of our time. Finding a sustainable level of economic, environmental and social consumption is vital to ensure that we can protect the planet from further damage. Sustainability in China particularly, has always interested me; which is why I was keen to undergo a Green Technology, Sustainability and Environmental internship with CRCC Asia. Here’s my thoughts.

China has been pushing a variety of sustainability initiatives, paving its way to the forefront of sustainability efforts. These initiatives include, bike-sharing schemes, electric vehicles and even plans for a forest city. With a population of over 1.4 billion and a vast land size, the country has unique challenges in the context of sustainability. My internship in Shanghai was broadly in the sustainability domain, whilst coming from an academic background in politics, I was intrigued to see how political and sustainability matters intertwined. Especially given the distinctive culture and political system of China that entails complexities and particularities on issues distinctive from the United Kingdom and Europe. 

I embarked on an internship with a Shanghai based online platform, which aims to promote sustainable change in China. The experience gave me an insight into sustainability in China at various levels of society. The company acts as a hub for high-impact initiatives, working towards positive solutions for people and the environment. Bringing together those working on positive change in the sustainability domain, such as zero-waste initiatives and sustainable agriculture. They provide workshops on climate change and the new recycling laws in Shanghai, helping institutions understand the causes and solutions to these pressing issues. 

This experience firstly allowed me to understand the dynamic nature of sustainability as a term. Sustainability can certainly be ambiguous, what it means to be sustainable and what are considered issues of sustainability are open to degrees of interpretation. Some have commentated that for generations in China, the notion of sustainability merely meant having enough to eat. Matters that we typically associate with sustainability, at the time, were not on the table for discussion. But in the present day, after decades of growth and improvements in living standards, China is now at the forefront of global, wide-ranging sustainability challenges. In this global context, pointing to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals introduced in 2015, provides a clear framework for understanding both the wide-ranging nature of sustainability and the goals for each issue. For me, the delineation of these goals presents a clear outline for a global push on these challenges.  

The challenges of sustainability still present conflictual situations to nations, take China for instance, where decades of tackling poverty have arguably been at the costs of other sustainability concerns. But as China has economically grown in these decades, these other concerns have become more prominent. The Chinese government has positioned itself as leading the way on sustainability, being one of the first to create an SDG action plan, incorporating the SDGs in the 13th five-year plan. Certainly the strong central government enables swift action on matters of sustainability. Here we see that uniqueness in the crossover between sustainability initiatives and China’s style of politics. The new recycling laws in Shanghai presented a clear example of this, being described as a ‘very strange but somehow effective mode of governance.’ Much of these sustainability matters tend to follow top-down processes in becoming salient, making sense of the comment that the recycling laws sent the Shanghai citizens into a frenzy. 

Sustainability is certainly a hot topic in Shanghai, whilst the Chinese government are implementing policy to tackle the variety of challenges in the country. If you are interested in creating change and being at the forefront of sustainability initiatives, Shanghai is certainly a hub for this. CRCC internships offer the opportunity for exciting, character building internships that will put you on the right track towards a successful and purposeful career. 

Written by William Irving – Shanghai programme alumni



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