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First das Auto, Then Nature

Global Knowledge Gateway


First das Auto, Then Nature

by Vincent Tophoff, Senior Technical Manager, IFAC | January 31, 2014 | 1

A recent trip to China left me both impressed and depressed, and more aware than ever that environmental problems there belong to the entire world.

Since my last visit, more than 20 years ago, the country has propelled itself from a primarily agricultural nation into an economic superpower. We are all aware of the continuous stream of double-digit growth figures but traveling through the country gives you a better idea of how this translates in actual changes in living conditions for the Chinese—from plow to assembly line, from dirt road to highway, from shack to skyscraper, from Mao suit to Prada, from steam train to bullet train, from bicycle to Volkswagen—an unprecedented scale!

However, there is also a very dark flipside to this rapid economic growth—the massive pollution of air, soil, and water. Most of us know this from media reports, but only when you see it with you own eyes do you realize how bad it actually is. That is, if you can see anything at all: a hazy sky is the new normal in many parts of China and, at times, more often than not, pollution levels grossly exceed the safety limits, making the sky dark during the day. A recent study from the US National Academy of Sciences, Evidence on the Impact of Sustained Exposure to Air Pollution on Life Expectancy from China’s Huai River Policy, found that air pollution alone has already decreased life expectancies for people from that area by 5.5 years.

The future looks even darker, as Chinese households, as well as households in other developing countries, are catching up with the developed world: in housing, transportation, travel, leisure, etc. There is still a long way to go before the Chinese hunger for more goods and services is satisfied.

The developed world, however, does not really have the right to point its finger at China as our own per capita carbon footprint is still two to four times higher than the average Chinese footprint (see Carbon Footprint of Nations for more information). The disparity increases further if one takes into account that many of the goods bought and used throughout the world are actually produced in China: we are the ones using the products while China carries the environmental burden.

Something needs to be done, both in China and elsewhere. We know professional accountants can’t save the world from environmental disaster on their own. However, professional accountants are well positioned to help interpret sustainability issues in a relevant way for their organizations, and to integrate those issues into the way they do business.

IFAC supports professional accountants in their sustainability efforts with a large series of resources, including many resources cited in the Global Knowledge Gateway.

People in China, as well as everywhere else, deserve good living conditions. Instead of a tradeoff—that is, needing to pick between having a car or protecting nature—we should strive for a balanced compromise: a green car that spares nature. Professional accountants can help find this balance!

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Stathis Gould
February 12, 2014

Thank you Vincent for sharing your experience of your recent trip to China. Global policy coordination and responses to climate change risk will be critical. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change notes there is a 95% to 100% probability that human activities are responsible for the emissions of GHGs that is leading to higher global temperatures. In the coldest winter I can remember here in NY, it is too easy for people to remark on how can we talk about global warming! But the effect of climate change and raising global temperature is complex and could bring significant risk to civilization. Climate change risk is a global problem - shown clearly in this article http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-02-06/haze-over-beijing-shanghai-is-a-problem-bigger-than-china-today-s-pic.html. But we seem to find it very difficult to respond globally. At what point will the global community agree a carbon budget? What economic, social and environmental events are needed for a multilateral response to take place? What is the tipping point?


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