Stanford Professor Addresses Sustainability Efforts in China

Professor James Leckie of Stanford University gave an enlightening presentation on “Sustainable Development in China: Water, Energy and Food” on April 8 as part of the Center for Asian Business Y.B. Min Lecture Series. An audience of primarily business and engineering students showed up to hear Professor Leckie talk about why China is plagued by these environmental problems and offer solutions on how the country can become more sustainable.

The world’s population has been growing steadily since the 1950s. Over the next 30 years, Asia and Africa are projected to have the greatest population increases. China in particular has experienced rapid urbanization and dramatic resource utilization since its reform process began in the late 1970s. China is expected to urbanize 350 million people over the next 20 years, which is roughly the population of the United States.

Food

Worldwide meat production (beef, chicken and pork) is the second largest greenhouse gas source behind energy production. It emits more atmospheric greenhouse gases than transportation or industrial processes. China is the largest producer of pork (50%) which requires a lot of water. The country is solving its food problem by outsourcing to other parts of the world like Ethiopia and South America.

“This is not sustainable,” says Leckie. “The West needs to reduce its meat consumption to allow for wider use of animal protein in the developing world.”

Water

The water situation in China is dire. With the largest population in the world, China has less than one-fourth of the world’s average per capita water capacity. Among the nearly 700 cities in China, 400 are facing a water shortage. Overexploitation and pollution of surface and ground water sources have led to scarcity and environmental degradation. Industrial use of water has increased and 90 percent of aquifers are contaminated. The urban areas are pumping ground water as a source but this is not sustainable. Plans are in the works for China to reuse water for a second time.

Energy

In 2009, California changed its business model for energy consumption which allowed for the amount of energy per capital to flatten out. We’ve switched to LED bulbs which save energy by 30% and introduced energy efficient appliances like refrigerators. China looks to California as a leader in energy efficiency policies and practices and is now adopting similar strategies.

What’s the Solution?

“I believe China can solve its air pollution problem in less than 10 years,” says Leckie. “It’s a matter of political will and setting strict regulations.”

China has an incomplete legal system and weak law enforcement which makes it difficult to implement regulations. One of the biggest polluters in China is power plants which are controlled by the government. There appears to be a lack in cooperation and user participation amongst the Chinese to set new standards.

“There is so much opportunity and room for improvement,” says Leckie. “The infrastructure investment can only be made once so they must get it right.”