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UPDATED: March 13, 2008 Web Exclusive
Maurice Strong: Joint Efforts to Address Environment
Harmony can be achieved through the way in which we manage human affairs

"The establishment of the ministry of environmental protection is a good and welcome change. But it is wrong to think that the ministry alone can manage the environment," said Maurice Strong, former Under Secretary General and Special Advisor to the Secretary General of the United Nations, responding to a proposed governmental reshuffle during the First Session of the 11th National People's Congress, at the 52nd forum of China Foreign Affairs University held in Beijing, on March 12. Excerpts from his speech:

"We are moving into an era in which the environment and related issues are going to be among the principle sources of negotiation and potential conflicts. Therefore, we will drive a far more extensive international cooperation than we've already had. China is going to be very much at the center of this, because of her rapid economic development in the recent three decades. One of the consequences is that China is looked at by the rest of the world. What China does matters not only to itself but also to the whole world; and what the world does matters to China as well.

The environment I mention here is in a broader sense; it does not only refer to pollution control, and it is not just one sector like energy or industry. The actual responsibilities are in the hands of industries that affect the environment, such as minerals, oil and gas, energy, transport, and so forth. With this regard, it is the result of actions that we've taken in different sectors.

An environment agency or ministry cannot manage the environment, but can guide, monitor, provide expertise, and work with the substantial ministries to ensure that their activities actually have a positive rather than negative environmental impact. The fact that the current State Environmental Protection Administration will have an equal rank with other ministries will help the process very much.

A lot of people agree that there are problems with environmental protection, but the priority is given to the economic development. In a rapidly developing country like China, the human cost, the health cost and the overall economic cost are annoying the environment cost, and cannot be left until late. There must be an approach that aims for a harmonious relationship. Harmony can be achieved through the way in which we manage human affairs.

I respect the way that Japan handles the environment. We can learn something from the Japanese experience. In my earlier work with the UN Environment Program, I had to travel all over the world. When I arrived in Tokyo for the first time, the city was more polluted than Beijing yesterday. They realized that they had to reconstitute the basis of their economy and move to an economic and industrial efficiency. They made some excellent changes by making the whole economy more efficient in terms of its use of resources, disposal of waste materials, power generation, and so forth. In addition, some of the European economies have also demonstrated that integrating the economy with the environment on sustainable development basis actually contributes to the economy, as well as to improving the environment.

This is what we called sustainable development, which now refers to harmonious scientific development. The Chinese leaders have fully recognized it; they have a very sophisticated understanding of this. But leaders have to set direction. They can't do it alone; they need people not only to understand and have their own actions in their sectors, but also in their personal lives. It's a thrill to see that the concern and coverage over the environmental issues have become more and more in the Chinese media. What the leaders insist must be done, is to put China on the pathway to a scientific new development model, to produce a harmonious society. The new development model is needed but it doesn't come easily or automatically. It's not primarily just to respond to international pressures, but for the interests of China itself.

It is true that we have pollution here in Beijing, but we should remember that all countries that have gone through rapid industrialization have also encountered such a problem. China is not the worst one; other Olympic host cities also had this problem. The only difference is that the speed and scale of economic development in China is so much greater than other countries have experienced.

I have spent most of my time here in China, 80 percent to date. I have a problem with heart and health, but I still choose to stay because there are so many good things in Beijing; many things have been done to reduce the air pollution, some of them are temporary and others are permanent. I strongly believe that the air quality in Beijing will be improved because of the upcoming Olympic Games."

Profile of Maurice Strong

Born and educated in Canada, Strong has been working at a senior level for over 30 years in business and government, and in international organizations, holding the following positions, among others: Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (1972); First Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program; Under Secretary General and Special Advisor to the Secretary General of the United Nations.

His current appointments include Honorary Professor of Peking University, Environmental Management College of China; and Honorary Board Chairman of Peking University Environment Fund.

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