BEIJING — In 1983, when the United Nations was calling for countries to discuss how to satisfy human needs while preserving nature, China faced a dilemma.
The nation wanted to have a voice in the international community, but its best ecologist knew little except how to deal with locust plagues. So Niu Wenyuan, a geographer interested in taking care of mother earth, was asked to help.
What started out as a temporary assignment to the United Nations, according to Niu, became his never-ending mission to promote a green growth path for China. The 72-year-old has spent almost half his life on it and currently serves as an adviser to Premier Wen Jiabao. Some of his earlier proposals, ignored at the beginning, are now helping to reshape the nation’s approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Niu started this mission with Ma Shijun, the expert on locusts. Since 1983, they analyzed China’s spiraling economic growth and its toll on nature. They also traveled abroad to brainstorm with experts from all over the world. In 1987, the two Chinese scientists teamed up with their foreign peers to turn their ideas into a report titled “Our Common Future,” in which the United Nations took on the task of urging countries to practice “sustainable development.”
In the words of the report, that was a new development path that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” If countries followed it, they argued, then they could secure food supply, slow down climate change and allow the next generations to see as many kinds of wildlife as their predecessors enjoyed.
But there was one problem: Although the United Nations report pointed out a direction, it didn’t map out a policy trail for each country. And in China it came at a time when the nation had just begun lifting itself out of poverty. Very few people knew or cared about sustainable development, recalled Niu. He was determined to change that.
Clinging to a sustainable idea
When Niu was getting ready to make his first move, bad news struck. His strongest supporter, the locust specialist Ma, died in a car accident in 1991. “That was a big blow,” Niu said. Nonetheless, he pushed forward.
One year after the loss of his ally, Niu turned their idea into a reality. He established Environment and Sustainable Development Research Center at the Chinese Academy of Sciences to study sustainability, the first of its kind in the nation.
During the first few years, the institute’s budget was so tight that Niu had to keep switching between his role as a scientist and a fundraiser. Besides that, its researchers’ persistence was often put to test.
There were critics in and outside academia. They viewed sustainable development as a romantic idea, definitely not an essential way of living. Niu fought back, writing books to explain why China should change its development course and laying out how to do it.
Then in 1998, Niu upgraded his promotion campaign with an unusual move. His institute featured their newest findings in a report. It made sure that free copies were handed to representatives who came from every corner of the country to attend China’s annual Congress meeting in Beijing.
“That was a big investment,” said Niu, referring to some 6,000 free copies his institute gave away in 1998. “At that time, it was rare to provide reports for free, but we wanted to let more people know about sustainable development,” he explained.
The return surprised him. “People who didn’t get the copy started asking for it,” recalled Niu, with a smile. Nowadays, this annual report “Sustainable Development Strategy National Report” ranks as a must-read for Chinese officials, from the central government to the local authorities.
Meanwhile, Niu’s efforts caught the eye of the outside world. He won some prestigious awards from western groups including the Rockefeller Foundation. In 2007, a jury led by the Italian National Academy of Sciences awarded Niu with an international environmental prize, praising him for blazing a path for China’s sustainable development.
Battling for a ‘green’ GDP
Not every step Niu outlined survived in the Chinese political system. What came under immediate attack, for instance, was his attempt to introduce a ‘green gross domestic product’ as a new method of defining China’s economic progress.
Under the new method, budget planners included environmental costs such as water and air pollution to determine China’s economic output. In 2004 alone, that cut the output by tens of billions of dollars, disclosed in China’s first green GDP audit issued in 2005.
To be sure, the Chinese weren’t the first ones to try this method. The world’s earliest green GDP audit experiments date back to the early 1990s in the United States, but they didn’t gain broad political backing. So as one of a few countries whose governments chose to adopt green GDP, China enjoyed a golden moment in the world’s spotlight. Its supporters were planning to issue another audit the following year, but then they hit a snag and the plan was delayed.
“One reason is that the method of calculating green GDP is too complicated,” explained Niu, the chief adviser to that audit. “But more importantly, local officials resisted it. They were afraid that accounting environmental costs will undermine their GDP achievements and therefore cloud their promotion.”
The delay of issuing China’s second green GDP audit seemed endless. Niu’s proposal to resume it in 2007 brought no response. But he wasn’t going to be deterred by local officials. This summer, Niu ranked Chinese provinces with a self-developed accounting system called “GDP quality index.” It accounts the province’s economic output, but also monetizes the losses of nature, sustainability and social equality. Niu says that the new index is more comprehensive than green GDP.
This was still not appreciated by some local officials. Shortly after his ranking went public, officials bombarded Niu with phone calls. Why, they wanted to know, were their provinces were ranked so low?
“I explained and it seems they understand,” said Niu. But even if local officials don’t, he made it clear this won’t stop him. His second ranking, scheduled to be published next year, will include detailed notes for provincial governments on their progresses and mistakes.
“If you are doing the right thing,” Niu says, “then others will accept it sooner or later.”
Linking cap and trade with Confucius
Another reason was that his ideas had gained more political traction in Beijing. Last month, in their newly issued white paper on climate change, Chinese leaders promised to speed up build-up of domestic carbon trading, an economywide scheme Niu promoted several years ago.
In 2006, Niu was weary of a war of words over the reality of climate change. He was also weary of his peers presenting China as a victim of global warming yet refusing its own responsibility to emit less climate-harmful gases.
So Niu led a team to measure carbon footprint in 289 cities and to study ways to cut the greenhouse gas the cities emit through emissions trading. Their study was translated into a thick phone book-sized report. Once again, though, that report was locked up in the drawer of top politicians.
Niu says he wasn’t surprised. “A good politician,” he noted, “knows how to play along two rules. First one is science. Second is art.” Part of the ‘art’ was that the acceptance of his ideas improved after 2008 when the Chinese public became more familiar with the future risks of climate change and developed a desire to combat them.
So what should a good scientist do?
As a believer in Confucianism, Niu’s answer is simple: “Applying knowledge to things that could help everyone.” And “one way of doing this,” he adds, “is by influencing decisionmakers.”
After 28 years of effort, Niu appears to have accomplished that. On the walls of his office at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing are photographs of him with the president Hu Jintao, as well as the premier, who was handing him the letter of appointment as an adviser to Chinese leaders.
Photo courtesy of Flickr