A team of environmental experts at Yale and Columbia universities in the United States has just released Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI) figures and rankings at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
It concluded that Finland ranks first in the world in environmental sustainability out of 146 countries after they measured the performance of each on 21 elements of environmental sustainability, including natural resource endowments, past and present pollution levels, environmental management efforts and contributions to protection of the global commons.
China gets a poor and very worrying ESI score of 38.6, ranking 133rd.
Finland and some other countries ranked higher for their substantial natural resource endowments, low population density and successful management of environment and development issues.
Compared with them, China obviously does not have such advantages because of the huge population and the low per capita resources. Yet these are not the only reasons for China's low score.
When put in a peer group with similar per capita GDP, China performs better than most of the group in reducing population stress, international collaborative efforts and environmental health, poorer in most of the rest items, especially reducing trans-boundary environmental pressures, air quality, water quality, natural resource management, reducing waste and consumption pressure.
Judging from these factors, it is obvious China's mix of leading edge and laggardness both lie in the management of the environment issues instead of natural gifts.
Things seem to be simple, then. After all, the management of environment issues is a direct result of decision-making in the environment-related fields, which is not like the unchangeable natural resource endowment. As long as the right policies are implemented, management of environment issues could be improved.
Yet that is where difficulties lie. Given the wide spectrum of the factors influencing the environment, quite a part of which could not be measured under current scientific and technological framework, we are far from knowing what are the "right" policies to improve the management of environment issues.
To make things worse, the environment issue cannot stand by itself for a huge developing country like China. It is forever mingled with another keyword: development.
It is true that the single-minded pursuit of economic development would incur huge costs on the environment. But it is also true that economic prosperity is a precondition to financial capabilities for treating polluted air and water, reducing solid waste, ensuring daily substance for people and helping them lead more environment-friendly lives.
As the authors of the ESI report have stated, every country has its specific set of problems to tackle in the environment field, even though many of them have similar ESI scores. Each country should also be unique in its countermeasures to tackle the problems.
For China, the awareness of sustainable development has been woven into policies. More is done to give due attention to environment protection during the process of achieving more prosperity.
China is reshuffling its industrial structure to cut down on industrial pollution. It is also investing heavily on preserving bio-diversity, preventing desertification, and improving the efficiency of the use of energy and other resources.
Only a couple of weeks ago, the State Environmental Protection Administration called a halt to 30 projects violating rules about environmental impacts assessment, although most of them are power projects which could ease the nation's thirst for energy.
This is only the beginning of China's determination as well as her sense of responsibility to prevent environment deterioration for its people and for the rest of the world.
It may not be honorable to get a low ESI score now. But this can act as departure point from which China can progress ever upward.
(China Daily January 31, 2005)