In China, Establishing Indicators for Global Sustainable Development

by |July 2, 2015

Last weekend, Earth Institute executive director Steven Cohen and post-doctoral research scholar Dong Guo participated in the Fourth Global Think Tank Summit in Beijing, hosted by the China Center for International Economic Exchanges (CCIEE). CCIEE, the preeminent think tank in China headed by the former vice premier, hosted hundreds of politicians, scholars, business leaders, and experts from nearly 30 countries at the summit.

Earth Institute executive director Steve Cohen discusses sustainability in CCIEE’s Fourth Global Think Tank Summit in Beijing. © china.com.cn

For the first time, the biennial summit focused on promoting global sustainable development, showing that China is recognizing the significance of this important field.  In a session on “Green Growth,” Cohen shared his expertise on sustainability and developing a green economy alongside leaders from China, Europe, and the United States, including Fredd Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, and Amory Lovins, co-founder, chairman emeritus, and chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute. Cohen discussed the need to incorporate sustainability into routine decision-making in government, non-profit, and private organizations to enable continued and productive use of our natural resources, as well as long-term economic growth. This concept of “sustainability management,” says Cohen, is a growing trend that all sectors of society are beginning to embrace, but a standardized system of measurement and management tools is still needed in order to seriously assess progress.

The Earth Institute’s Research Program on Sustainability Policy and Management recently partnered with the summit host, CCIEE, on a research project centered on sustainability management, seeking to collaboratively establish a sustainability metrics framework for Chinese cities, followed by broader sustainability accounting standards in China and, eventually, a global standard. This joint research is grounded in the belief that the government needs to take a leading role in addressing sustainability issues, especially when the private sector lacks financial incentive to act. With its unique position and influence in the Chinese central government, CCIEE will be instrumental in implementing the measurement system in an impactful way. In a press conference during the summit, Dr. Dong Guo shared the first stage of this research: the publication of a joint white paper that presents the development of a preliminary sustainability framework for use in Chinese cities. This framework, contingent on China’s unique economic development status, is an effort to create a standardized system and set of sustainability indicators to measure and manage China’s sustainability progress. China’s contribution to global sustainable development is particularly important, and although the government has worked hard to establish a sustainable strategy for its development, the sheer pace of China’s economic growth makes it a difficult task. China (and the rest of the world) needs a sustainability performance measurement system to create the right incentives and hold policymakers accountable.

Steve Cohen and Dong Guo join CCIEE researchers to share joint research on sustainability metrics in China. © CCIEE

The preliminary framework—comprised of five subject areas: social welfare, resources and environment, human impact, sustainability management, and stable growth—was developed utilizing an integrated approach that categorizes indicators by subject area while also considering the causal relationship among the fields. This indicator system was designed with several goals in mind, the first of which is to support China’s commitment to global sustainable development and to provide a decision-making basis for China to more effectively participate in global environmental governance. The system also seeks to monitor and evaluate the sustainability of China’s macroeconomic development, provide a decision-making basis for the country as a whole to formulate macroeconomic policies and strategic plans, and offer a sound performance evaluation system.

This first stage of work builds upon previous research undertaken by the Research Program on Sustainability Policy and Management in the field of sustainability metrics, but, according to Guo, “is unique in its aim to develop a more precise system that is directly applicable to the Chinese situation.” The preliminary framework is a foundation for further analysis and refinement and so, as currently defined, captures the broadest extent and definition of sustainability. In further research, cases of urban sustainability plans and existing sustainability frameworks will be used to draw out critical elements and identify gaps in sustainability measurement; this analysis will then be applied to the framework as it is adopted to Chinese cities. In doing so, the number of indicators will be pared down, using dimension-reducing statistical methodologies, into a parsimonious framework that can be broadly applied across China. This work will have important implications for cities in China and will provide a unique example and model for other cities around the world, advancing the overall field of sustainable development.

© CCTVNews

In an interview with CCTV, the top news station in China, Cohen further discussed the partnership with CCIEE, the need for a standardized system to measure and manage sustainability, and the importance of learning from one another. Settling on a core group of key metrics in China is a first step in establishing a standard that could eventually be adopted globally, but requires a collaborative approach. As Cohen says, “We can’t have a different set of sustainability indicators in China and in the U.S. because we have only one planet.”


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