Jeffrey Sachs Lectures on Challenge of Sustainable Development in China

July 26, 2013

Professor Jeffrey D. Sachs quoted the late John F. Kennedy in his July 22 lecture “China and the Challenge of Sustainable Development” at Columbia Global Centers | East Asia: "For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty, and all forms of human life."

Sachs, at right, is the director of the Earth Institute, Quetelet Professor of Sustainable Development, Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University, and also the Director of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN).

“Humanity has entered a new era of both risk and possibility, and each government faces its unique challenge,” he said, “though extreme poverty has been reduced by half since 1990 according to data from the World Bank, the challenges are still big: social inequality is rising, social capital decreases, the environment is under great stress, and the world is still searching for effective solutions.”

Sachs listed several challenges for China, such as pollution which is a serious problem in major cities in China because proper environmental protections and control have not been put in place to accompany its rapid economic growth, which has been prioritized. Human induced climate change is affecting China, leading to global warming effects such as flood, and drought. China has steeply rising emissions of CO2, despite significant investment in renewable energy. He believes that China’s one-child policy has been good for reducing population density.

Sachs described sustainable development as a holistic framework that combines economic development, social inclusion, environmental sustainability, and good governance. He suggested that in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, important challenges for China to accomplish include energy security with low-carbon energy, clean air and water, adjusting to demographic change such as urbanization and the aging population, and global leadership in sustainable development.

The lecture was followed by comments from two invited discussants. Lan Xue, the Center’s Advisory Board member, Cheung Kong Chair Professor, and Dean of School of Public Policy and Management at Tsinghua University, suggested that it would be better to have an open debate on  specific goals for sustainable development among the public so that the goals are well understood and accepted. Gordon Liu, professor from the Department of Applied Economics at Peking University Guanghua School of Management and director of Peking University China Center for Health Economic Research, commented that the government’s development policy should switch from economic oriented to health centered.

Audience members from the United Nations, research institutions, universities, non-governmental organizations, and news media asked questions about the government’s role in carrying out sustainable development policy from the central to local levels, as well as the ways to balance the tradeoff between economic systems and environment system.