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"Staggering Challenge" of Sustainability Spurs Chinese Research, Innovation, Says Raven in Landmark China Lectures
China's explosive economic growth in the past two decades has brought rapid development to the benefit of its citizens but also challenges to the country's environmental capacity to sustain the growth, former AAAS President Peter Raven said in lectures in Beijing and Shanghai last month.
In the first-ever AAAS-Chinese Academy of Sciences Distinguished Lectureship on Sustainability, Raven emphasized that China's sustainability challenges are largely shared by the rest of the world, particularly with regard to climate change. Developed countries must join forces with developing countries to create a planet "in which we are not threatened by instabilities and catastrophes caused by our common neglect of our common problems," said Raven.
Raven, who was born in Shanghai in 1936, delivered the 24 September lecture in the city as the first speaker in an exchange between AAAS and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). As part of a landmark agreement signed last September, AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner and CAS President Lu Yongxiang agreed to establish a series of lectures on the importance of environmental sustainability in supporting economic growth in the United States and China.
Raven is the director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, and has been a professor of botany at Washington University in St. Louis since 1971. He served on the AAAS Board as president and then chairman of the board in 2002-2003. He was a member of U.S. President Bill Clinton's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology, and served for twelve years as home secretary of the National Academy of Sciences. Over the course of his career, he has published hundreds of popular and technical articles on species conservation and environmental degradation.
Speaking to graduate students and researchers, Raven began with a litany of bleak statistics behind the world's sustainability crisis. The planet's 6.7 billion people are consuming an estimated 125% of the world's total ongoing productivity, he said, "which means that the supply of soil, clean water, clean air, forests, natural habitats, and biodiversity is declining continuously."
China in particular faces staggering challenges in maintaining these resources, noted Raven. China's carbon dioxide emissions increased 7% in 2007, 14% more than in the United States that year. China has 20% of the world's people, but only 8% of the world's renewable freshwater supply. Half of China's plants and animals, many of them yet undiscovered, could disappear by the end of the 21st century.
And in 2006, Pan Yue, the deputy minister of China's environmental protection agency, estimated that two-thirds of the country's 2 million annual cancer deaths were related to environmental pollution. "Until China, and all of us, factor in the costs of pollution in all aspects of economic development, that development will choke itself, and all of us, to death," warned Raven.
Yue has estimated that the cost of environmental damage in China is keeping pace with the country's overall economic growth, and environmental costs are predicted to double over the next 15 years. These calculations prove that the economy and the environment can no longer be considered separately, Raven suggested.
"Despite widespread reluctance to do so, every country needs to develop economic metrics that take into account the environmental costs associated with its development," he said, praising China's 2004 "Green GDP" calculation as a "very positive step in this direction."
In fact, China and its top-level scientists could one day lead the world in environmental solutions. The challenges are so severe in China that the country is already "pursuing sustainability much more aggressively than the U.S.," Raven said, "developing many of the products needed throughout the world and the capacity to manufacture them, advances that stand to greatly enrich the country in the future."
Raven delivered similar remarks at a 22 September lecture to the CAS Institute of Botany in Beijing, noting that Chinese researchers are already working on more efficient automobiles, better treatment of polluted water, new efforts to catalog the country's biodiversity and a $3.5 billion initiative to develop genetically modified crops.
"Science and technology, including enlightened policies informed by sound science, are key drivers for sustainable solutions to the enormous challenges facing our two countries," remarked Tom Wang, AAAS director for international cooperation, who traveled to China with Raven. "Only by accelerating cooperation between the United States and China will we develop those solutions. We hope to stimulate this process by these exchanges, and we look forward to having the CAS-nominated speaker in the United States next year."
Also in September, Science Editor-in-Chief Bruce Alberts and Asia Science News Editor Richard Stone met with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and China's Minister of Health Chen Zhu on the 30th anniversary of the first AAAS delegation to China.
28 October 2008