Children giving hope for a greener tomorrow
(Alexander Wan and Selina Lo)

Global warming, the exhausting of energy reserves and water supplies, pollution, insufficient land to support a growing population, abject poverty and uneven distribution of resources were identified as the world's major problems by delegates at China Daily's 21st CEO Roundtable.

The event, with the theme of "Sustainable Development in China" and chaired by Dr Jane Goodall was held on December 6 at the Grand Hyatt hotel in Beijing. Goodall, world-renowned chimpanzee expert and UN Messenger for Peace, met with some thirty CEOs and leaders from multinational companies in major business sectors such as energy, petro-chemicals, technology, cars, finance, strategy consulting, healthcare, NGOs and a special delegation from the Harvard School of Public Health.

"Other countries have been through the same kind of problems that China is facing today," said Goodall, citing examples in the UK and US." China is so big and there are so many people so inevitably, environmental and other problems are going to be harder to tackle."

Two approaches

"For the model of sustainable development to be really sustainable, you need two approaches: top-down and bottom-up," said Professor Liu Yuanli, director of the China Initiative in the Department of Population and International Health of the Harvard School of Public Health.

"Leadership is needed at the planning and policy level," Liu added.He illustrated this with a story of how county government leadership in Hubei curbed deforestation by introducing methane as a cooking fuel to replace firewood, which stopped inhabitants from cutting down trees.

The role of the government

Executive Editor of the China Daily CEO Roundtable, Alexander Wan, pointed out that the Chinese government is already working on sustainable development.

"In China's 11th Five-Year Plan which is coming up in the country in a few weeks," Wan reminded delegates,"there will be a continual emphasis from top state leadership on the development of a harmonious society, which is very relevant to what we are talking about here today. It is very much about applying scientific approaches to make use of natural and human resources for the long-term benefit of all people."

David Michael, director and senior vice-president of the Boston Consulting Group, agreed.

"Clearly, the Chinese Government is increasingly taking the issue that you highlighted very seriously," he said.

But he added that even the government is not omnipotent in the face of such grave environmental issues.

"I think the experience in other countries would be that governments cannot do all of this by themselves," says Michael."And in other countries, there's more of a tradition of support from non-governmental organizations and also from domestic companies. In China, there's not such a history of non-governmental organizations, and many domestic companies are too new to have developed experience in social responsibility."

The role of companies

Gathered at the roundtable were CEOs and senior executives from Fortune 500 companies including Bayer, ChevronTexaco, Deloitte, Dow Chemical, Hewlett Packard, Novartis, Siemens and Shell. Officials from the German Embassy, the US Embassy and the World Health Organization (WHO) were also present. Goodall admitted her ethical dilemma: multinationals are both the culprit of environmental degradation and its saviours.

"If you have people continually wanting more than they need, and those people can't grow everything and harvest everything that they need for their lifestyle locally, they will go out and basically rape the last of these resources from other parts of the world," Goodall said."Thus, there is a continual conflict between environmental protection and economic growth, and again and again, economic growth wins out."

This is where the multinational companies (MNCs) come in, said Goodall, because only their moral and financial support can push change forward.

"We need wealthy people more than ever before to buy into the new technologies which start off as very expensive," she said."One of the really encouraging developments is that corporations are stepping in, and so we're having increasing support, particularly in China, from corporations that care, that do have an ethical standard."

The role of technology

James McIlvenny, president of Dow greater China, also spoke up for MNCs. "Today, I think, corporations are much more open, more willing to participate, wanting to participate," he said.

"And companies like mine believe in technology.We believe that there are technical solutions to all problems.And with the right co-operation, we can solve our issues," said McIlvenny.

Regarding technology, Liu Xiaowei, deputy director of external affairs of Shell China, said: "Whether multinational or Chinese, I do think they [corporations] all have a role to play.Being multinational, our role is to apply cutting edge technology."

Mutual understanding

Ladd Christensen, Chairman of the Global Bridge Foundation,claimed MNCs can even set the stage for global collaboration and speed up progress.

"I think corporations can play a big role in helping with tolerance and understanding between the people of different countries," Christensen said.

"Although China is still considered to be at the evolvement stage in many issues as far as other countries like the US is concerned, I think it's important to have mutual respect for the tremendous and great challenge that China, its leaders and its business people have. With a true understanding where all parties are, mutual respect and tolerance, we will have an even better chance of progressing."

The role of NGOs

NGOs have been growing rapidly in China recently. Liu Xiaowei said there was "a lot of hope to promote sustainable development in China" because of them.

But while NGOs and environmental organizations are all working towards a common goal, they can sometimes get very territorial, Goodall admitted.

"We're trying to form partnerships with more of them like the Nature Conservancy and the IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare) ," she said.

She advocated a more open attitude to enlist as much corporate aid as possible in order to enhance global participation and efforts.

On companies which she believes are cutting-edge and trying to do it better, she said:"I want to support them because if people don't support them, and they (the firms) are paying a little bit more to do it ethically, they're going to go out of business or they'll revert to their old ways."

Hope is in the children: animals, people and the environment.

Goodall said children are the future. "My hope is in the youth," she said. "My hope is that children are influencing not only their parents, but also those people in corporate leadership roles, NGO heads and government leaders who truly care about the future of their planet, the future of their own country and above all, the future of their own children."

In 1998, Goodall started the 'Roots & Shoots' programme in China, teaching young people how to choose hands-on projects to make the world a better place in three areas: animals, people and the environment.With a presence in 90 countries, Roots & Shoots has 8,000 active groups around the world of all ages from pre-school to university. Between 400 to 500 groups are now present in different parts of China, and according to Goodall, "it's spreading fast."

"Roots & Shoots was the direct outcome of my conviction that young people today are losing hope because of the insoluble problems that have been inflicted on the planet, says Goodall. "If we do care about our grandchildren and theirs, then this environmentally sustainable future is desperately important."

Liu Yuanli echoed Goodall's views on the importance of what he called a bottom-up approach.

"Sustainable development is about children not only because we care about their welfare, but also because children can play a powerful role in changing behaviour," said Liu.

"My kids are always reminding me to recycle," Liu confessed. "I've been a professor at Harvard and am good at talking the talk, but it's children who hold their parents accountable for walking the walk."

Countries define hopes and solutions

Goodall urged countries to look at themselves because she believed only the countries themselves have the solutions.

"I don't have the solutions, but the people in a country do. And it's the people in the country in China that I've spoken to on my different visits that have given me more ideas as to how we can introduce the Roots & Shoots programme."

"Roots & Shoots is growing in every kind of different environment, including China," said Goodall."It's very much about breaking down the barriers that we erect between people of different countries, different cultures, different religions, and the tremendous barrier that we have erected between us and the animal kingdom."

"They're [the children] going to be increasingly infected with the Roots and Shoots philosophy.It's a good philosophy - and as I say, it changes lives. It gives hope to our children. Hope is and will be there."

Delegates agreed that both the hope and the solutions concerning sustainable development in China are to be found within society. (comments to:alexwan@

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