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Economy and ecology - the win-win

How China's victory over poverty can inspire the fight for nature

Bordering the Mongolian desert, Saihanba was once a royal hunting ground for the imperial household until years of tree felling brought an end to this royal paradise in the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and it became a wasteland. The expansion of the desert plagued Beijing, with its residents battered by recurrent sandstorms.

In the 1960s, China decided to turn the desert back into a green paradise. Hundreds of foresters were sent to this desolate place. They endured long cold winters, severe droughts and sandstorms. The toil lasted for 55 years, spanning three generations. It paid off. The restored forest has stimulated green economic growth that has generated an estimated 12 billion yuan ($1.85 billion).

I visited Saihanba with Li Ganjie, then minister of the environmental protection, in 2017. In December that year, on behalf of the United Nations, I had the honor to award this hard work the highest UN environment prize, bestowing on it a Champions of the Earth award. Saihanba now stands as a great green wall against the southward advances of the Hunshandake Desert. It's a prime example of how to combine poverty alleviation with environmental restoration and protection.

President Xi Jinping has announced the country has achieved its goal of eliminating abject poverty, beating the UN's deadline for ending poverty by 10 years.

China's victory over poverty is the most significant development of the 21st century so far, not only for the Chinese people, but also for the world. Extreme poverty is devastating. Now people in China are better fed, better clothed, live in more comfortable homes, and receive education and basic healthcare. Life expectancy in China is approaching that of many developed countries and will soon be among the highest in the world. In 1980 China was poorer than Africa. Now China is an upper middle-income country, soon to reach the level of developed nations.

This progress has deep roots in Chinese history. It cannot easily be copied by other nations. Still there is a lot other developing countries can learn from China's experience.

Earlier than other civilizations in history, China was united under a central government, which mobilized resources and commanded collective action to fight flooding and droughts, build channels and water management systems. The Chinese civilization has been forged in the nation's millennia-long fight against the harsh environment. It sprang out of China's unique geography.

The Chinese culture is pragmatic and people-oriented. Education has always commanded more respect than being a warrior. Chinese political governance has always prioritized the people's livelihoods. The same cultural emphasis is also manifest in other Confucian influenced countries.

The history of nations differs, but the modern Chinese recipe of capable leadership, a market-oriented economy, hard work, focus on education and determined nationwide efforts to fight poverty tooth and nail, can inspire people in all corners of the world.

Can China repeat its success in the fight against climate change and for an environmental civilization?

Yes. The key to winning the new battle will fundamentally depend on the same formula: the integration of State capacity and a market-based economy.

A determined, development-oriented leadership using a detailed blueprint and data and allowing bottom-up decentralized practical solutions will work just as well in the climate context. The same social development formula will make it possible for China to peak emissions and become carbon neutral by integrating the ecology with the economy. It will not be easy, but it's doable.

Poverty alleviation and environmental protection are two sides of the same coin.

Over the last few years, a new development model is gaining ground in China and the world. The triple-win solution: Integrating the economy and environment and peoples livelihoods in an ecological civilization. This is possible because renewable energy can now replace coal and other fossil fuels.

The old global formula of "first we pollute, then we clean up", is last century.

Green policies can provide millions of new jobs, not least in the poorer parts of China. Creating a Beautiful China by restoring nature and protecting wildlife is the basis for tourism. Tourism is the biggest job creator in the world. China is the world's leading country in tourism, claiming the largest domestic and outbound travel market.

Renewable energy can be decentralized, produced locally, create jobs everywhere including in remote places. Solar power can be off grid or on grid, solar panels installed on rooftops or lakes and in deserts.

Guangdong province has recently rolled out 200,000 base stations for 5G. High-tech will make it possible to create new green jobs in formerly isolated places that are now connected to the rest of China and the wider world. Startups can go straight to the market.

As part of China's national approach to eradicating absolute poverty, the Chinese government sent highly educated technocrats to grassroots communities to help local residents in their efforts to create sustainable economic growth and prosperity.

Fang Li, from the World Resources Institute, was deployed from the Ministry of the Ecology and Environment to a rural area in Weichang county in Hebei province, which oversees Saihanba Forest Park.

Using modern-day scientific methods and technology, she and her colleagues conducted extensive field research and data analysis based on the local villages' unique geography, climate, soil nutrients and infrastructure conditions. They introduced solutions which included solar panels, ground-source heat pumps, root cellars for underground storage of vegetables, and some rare fruit and vegetable traits. At the end, the lives of hundreds of thousands in Northern Hebei province were transformed through hard and smart work.

Weichang county was among the 592 impoverished counties on China's poverty alleviation priority list. Now it's a symbol of China's victory over poverty. And it points the way to China's green future.

The author is president of the Belt and Road Initiative Green Development Institute and former executive director of the United Nation Environment Programme.