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China's action on air pollution can help restore trust in a greener future

air pollution China

Bird's Nest stadium, Beijing. Image: Unsplash.

Rebecca Ivey
Head of Global Collaboration Village, World Economic Forum
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Davos Agenda

This article is part of: The Davos Agenda
  • China took environmental action by improving air quality in Beijing ahead of the 2008 Summer Olympics.
  • President Xi Jinping's pledge that China will be carbon neutral by 2060 requires global cooperation.
  • Studies highlight how restoring trust will be critical to achieving global climate targets.

From my window on the 18th floor of a Beijing office building, I can see distant mountains on three sides, standing out against a clear blue sky. The contrast is striking compared to the smog-wrapped city I first visited in the years running up to the 2008 Summer Olympics. As athletes, sports fans and political commentators prepare for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, amidst geopolitical tensions and climate risks, what lessons have been learned from this two-decade effort to clean up Beijing’s skies?

Have you read?

Efforts to improve air quality resulted in clear skies known as “Beijing Blue” which became the new normal after the Chinese government intervened. According to the International Olympic Committee, to fulfill its commitments made in the 2000 bid, China invested $21 billion in air quality improvements, including upgrading 60,000 coal-burning boilers and converting more than 4,000 public buses to run on natural gas.

Concrete achievements, not just rhetoric, are what enabled China to gain international acknowledgment and create “a lasting environmental legacy”, according to a UNEP report. Anyone who has breathed Beijing air for the past decade can attest, the path to blue skies has not been linear, but China’s commitments highlight measurable progress.

Taking action on climate change

The fight against air pollution is an example that foreshadows China’s ability to take action on climate change and redeem global trust for a more inclusive, resilient and sustainable future. President Xi Jinping’s ambitious pledges that China will reach peak emissions before 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060, have motivated industries to take action and prompted other countries to up their game on climate.

Figures show that China’s carbon intensity in 2020 was 48.4% less than that in 2005, fulfilling China’s commitment to the international community to achieve a 40-45% reduction in carbon intensity from the 2005 level by 2020. The “1+N” policy framework is dedicated to putting actionable policies in place in response to President Xi’s initial commitment.

Responding to climate change: China's policies and actions.
Responding to climate change: China's policies and actions.

This Herculean task gained momentum with the China-US Joint Glasgow Declaration on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s during COP26 in late 2021. The two nations have also reached a consensus on climate finance and nationally determined contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement. As the World Economic Forum President Borge Brende concluded, future cooperation between China and the US is crucial: “the only way [to move] forward is to realize that we are in the same boat and we have to collaborate”.

Restoring trust in global efforts to combat climate change

However, the picture is not entirely rosy. PwC’s 2021 Net Zero Economy Index shows that currently we are reducing the carbon intensity of our activities at less than one-fifth of the rate we need – 12.9% a year. Along with other studies, the report concludes that such a huge transition cannot be achieved without a systematic and complex rewiring of the entire global economy. But declining trust among the public further dampens this prospect. A global climate study by the Forum, covering 28 countries, finds that only around one-fourth of respondents trust business sustainability claims and most participants feel strongly that current environmental protection efforts are not sufficient.


What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?

To restore trust, the Forum is committed to supporting all stakeholders to find a common language on sustainability targets and actions. In 2020, in collaboration with other leading institutions in the field, the Forum co-developed a comprehensive set of metrics to fill the gap in consistent environmental, social and governance (ESG) reporting standards. A follow-up report on the ESG landscape among Chinese companies, concluded that a measurable, global language of sustainability is of particular relevance to Chinese stakeholders that accords with global green investing priorities while helping Chinese companies along the journey to reach national environmental targets is increasingly relevant and appreciated.

Meanwhile, the Green Investment Principles for the Belt and Road demonstrate the commitment of Chinese stakeholders to uphold climate action beyond its borders by supporting developing and emerging countries to harness green finance and technology to scale up low-carbon infrastructure.

Not only climate, but other global environmental concerns such as biodiversity, are high on China’s priority action list. Over the past two years, the Forum began publishing the New Nature Economy Report, using data to identify pathways for businesses and governments to join the transition to a nature-positive economy. The third part of this report, published today, places an emphasis on the nature-dependency of China’s economy and the potential to create more than 80 million nature-based jobs annually by 2030.

Nature risk rising. Source: PwC.
Nature risk rising. Source: PwC.

Looking back at events over the past two years, it is clear to the world that collaboration and trust are not just important – they are essential – if human beings are to survive and thrive. World leaders will have the chance to renew the world’s trust in their commitments to improve the state of the world at the Davos Agenda week which will be convened virtually.

Outside, the cloudless sky gives an impression of timelessness, but we should not forget that it was not achieved effortlessly nor single-handedly. To ensure that future generations can still enjoy the gifts of nature, we must shoulder the responsibility: working together, restoring trust.

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Related topics:
Forum InstitutionalGeographies in DepthNature and BiodiversityClimate Action
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May 21, 2024

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