What is China doing to protect and improve the environment?

Grantham Institute Head of Policy and Translation, Alyssa Gilbert, joined a group of Imperial College London students and staff on a trip to China. At Beijing’s Tsing Hua University, she saw a passion for protecting the natural environment at odds with the country’s pursuit of economic growth.

Like all universities, Imperial encourages international discourse and collaboration between academics and students across the globe. I recently joined a group of students and staff on a trip to Beijing, for our annual PhD summer school programme with Tsing Hua University, and to meet Imperial alumni working on environmental challenges in China.

For many of the Imperial students this was their first time in China, and as I write, they are embarking on a period of research there before coming home to the UK. Speaking to them at the start of our trip, they had already noted how different the city and people were from their preconceived ideas.

In each of my trips over the last 20 years I have been struck by the scale and speed of growth in China. In academia and policy we often reflect on the impact of rapid economic growth, which can be measured in its effects on the environment in general, on greenhouse gas emissions, and climate change in particular. But, seeing is believing.

Discovering the urban jungle

The vast expanse of Beijing, and the degree to which it has changed since I first visited the city in 1996 is staggering. The pollution is striking and tangible – not only the famous smog hanging in the air but waterways choking with litter.

Don’t get me wrong; I am a city girl. Beijing is among the most modern cities in the world, yet it manages to retain some of its cultural heritage. I like the way that parks and trees dot the urban landscape of roads and buildings. However, despite the sensitive integration of some green spaces, the pace of growth has evidently outstripped the desire to protect the natural environment. This situation is somewhat familiar to us from the UK’s built up areas, but sometimes it helps to be reminded what this imbalance looks and feels like, when taken to an extreme.

Of course, economic growth has the ability help the environment and bring people out of poverty – creating wealth to spend on what are, essentially, luxury concerns, inspiring citizens to action.

We spoke to a self-selecting bunch of citizens during our trip – students, researchers, and policy advisors who share our interest in environmental issues. Nonetheless, we heard the same message again and again: It is vital that China takes action on some of their most pressing environmental problems now. If sustainable development has three pillars – economy, society and environment – it is now becoming increasingly clear to the Chinese people that they must respect all three and there are many who passionately want to do something about it.

Finding a new path

Where there is a will, there is a way, and nowhere more-so than China. Past effort has focussed on delivering growth and jobs for such a vast population. Now, if the same determination can be applied to solving the environmental challenges faced by Chinese cities (in particular) there will most certainly be the most spectacular results.

I really felt a connection to our Chinese counterparts during the summer school at Tsing Hua University, and I hope that these new contacts will develop into genuine collaborations from which we can all benefit. Academia offers a space (although not the only one) of mutual respect and collaboration where we can pool our common knowledge to help to solve some of these acute environmental challenges. I learnt that many of the problems faced by the UK and China are exactly the same; we are all on the cusp of an unimaginable growth in knowledge to enable low-carbon living, and working together can help us be more than the sum of our parts.

The students worked together on potential collaborative research projects. In their future, science will continue to become an increasingly open space, where sharing is not just common but the norm. Effective collaboration, and rallying around common issues, will become even more important than it is today.

Sharing the wonder

I couldn’t finish my blog without mentioning the wonderful event held for us by the Imperial Beijing alumni association at the ‘Bird’s nest’ Olympic stadium. Having travelled from one Olympic city to another, our hosts made us feel like we were in a home away from home.

We talked for hours about what these alumni were doing in the environmental arena, whilst standing in this most spectacular man-made arena. We seeded a great number of ideas for further work together, and I thought about the power that a cohesive alumni community can wield to tackle intractable problems.

And so, I return, reinvigorated, and refreshed, reminded of the importance of global cooperation to tackle global challenges.

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