News Archive

posted 04/18/05

China Must Confront Growing Environmental Challenges, Concludes Panel of Experts

China is arguably the world’s latest economic wunderkind. One of the world’s most populous countries, it has reduced the number of people living in extreme poverty by as much as 60 percent and is now a leader in global trade and annual growth. Coupled with these successes, however, are challenges that pose significant threats not only to China’s economic, political and social stability, but to the health and well-being of the international community as well.

Experts from a range of fields converged on Columbia University on April 7, 2005 to discuss the enormous impacts of China’s booming economy as part of a symposium on "China’s Economic Emergence: Progress, Pitfalls and Implications at Home and Abroad.” The symposium featured Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, Earth Institute Director Jeffrey D. Sachs and Economics Professor Jagdish Bhagwati, along with more than 25 other scholars, business leaders and government officials. The panel topics covered the environmental costs of economic development, public health needs in the era of economic growth, as well as the problems and progress of legal reform.

A panel discussion led by Sachs focused on a significant obstacle to the country’s rapid economic progress: the impact of human activities on the natural environment. "The Environment in Chinese Development” panel featured Klaus Lackner and Upmanu Lall, both professors of Earth Sciences and Engineering at Columbia University; Mike McElroy, Professor of Environmental Studies at Harvard University; and Yisheng Zheng, Deputy Director of the Center for Environment and Development at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Professor Lackner, who is currently researching methods of carbon dioxide capture, detailed how China, instead of depending heavily on oil, could be a leader in the development of alternative energy options such as solar power. "China is growing very quickly, and [the world] should be supportive of this,” said Lackner. "But if it continues on this path of unmitigated energy consumption, the world will reach its resource limit very fast. China must reduce its dependence on oil… It can be done.”

Another important environmental as well as social challenge is China’s water shortage. Professor Upmanu Lall, a Senior Research Scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate Prediction at The Earth Insitute, detailed several dimensions of this problem: groundwater depletion, seasonal flooding and drought. "There is great variability in access to water throughout the country, and this problem tends to be endemic to China and not climate induced,” he said.

Throughout the first day of the symposium, experts from a range of fields, including economists and public health experts, pointed to China’s increasing dependence on oil and coal as a primary cause of the country’s pollution and resource depletion problems. That China today is second only to the U.S. in terms of oil consumption— and may soon become number one — was a focal point of all three panel discussions.

"China is missing opportunities to be more energy efficient,” said David Dollar, China Country Director at the World Bank. "A key factor to reform is that there are more interest groups who are resisting change, including car owners and farmers.” Several of the experts agreed that the best case scenario would be that the country leads the way in terms of researching and implementing alternative energy options. A worst case scenario would be a clash between the U.S. and China over oil resources.

The symposium was co-sponsored by Columbia University's Weatherhead East Asian Institute, the Graduate School of Business, School of Law, Mailman School of Public Health, and the Earth Institute.

The Earth Institute at Columbia University is the world's leading academic center for the integrated study of Earth, its environment and society. The Earth Institute builds upon excellence in the core disciplines — earth sciences, biological sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences and health sciences — and stresses cross-disciplinary approaches to complex problems. Through research, training and global partnerships, it mobilizes science and technology to advance sustainable development, while placing special emphasis on the needs of the world's poor. For more information, visit