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Lessons for India from Chinese Environmental Innovation; By Raakhee Suryaprakash

Image courtesy: World Economic Forum/

Article No. 050/2018

Inspiration comes from anywhere and when it comes to innovation the two Asian giants have a lot to gain by cooperation. In environmental actions and innovation, China has taken giant treads in harnessing the power of cutting-edge technology in fixing its environmental pollution crisis while focusing on achieving its climate goals and SDG. India, with its comparably vast population of engineers and scientists and its natural bent for jugaad [“a flexible approach to problem-solving that uses limited resources in an innovative way”], can benefit from China’s roadmap to sustainable development, climate action and eradication of pollution.

The first fact that helped China establish itself as a scientific giant and green pioneer is its massive investment in science, technology, and innovation (STI). According to the World Economic Forum, between 2000 and 2014, China spent 2.1% of its gross domestic product (GDP) on research and development (R&D). Although India’s gross research spending remains less than 1% of its GDP, despite scientific spending and investment being consciously increased over the years, it’s still not on par with the growth of the national GDP. Even Brazil invests a greater proportion of its GDP on R&D. This is something that needs to be addressed in India to achieve exponential growth in STI which can be harnessed into economic growth.

Air pollution is a problem in both India and China, although Indian cities dominate the World Health Organization’s global air pollution data – with 14 of the top 15 cities with the most polluted air being Indian.  China has tackled its urban air pollution problem on a war footing. First by recognizing that thermal power plants are major pollutants and shutting them down. Next, they turned to STI and installed massive air purifiers and then turned the collected particulate matter from smog and turning it into diamonds. The Smog-free Tower installed in Beijing was conceived by Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde. It is the world’s largest air purifier and similar structures have been installed in Rotterdam, Beijing, Tianjin, and Dalian. These gargantuan air purifiers are solar powered and absorb up to 30,000 cubic meters of polluted air per hour, cleansing the air of PM2.5, PM10 particles at the nano-level and releasing the cleaned air back into the city. The air around the tower is significantly (55%-75%) cleaner than before filtration. Carbon formed almost 42% of the pollutants collected and this was pressurized to make “Smog Diamonds.” Investing in such towers in our polluted cities will avert having to pay the enormous health price of people having to breathe polluted air. Air pollution’s depression of economic growth can be countered by investing in such innovative air cleansing technology as a quick-fix even as we work to reduce our dependence on thermal power, curb vehicular, agricultural and construction pollution through regulation and most importantly institute policy measures that promote electric vehicles – both as private and public transport.

Clean transport has been a big win for China. Large numbers of cycles for hire linked with apps (Mobikes) and with easy scan-and-pay-online methods as well as the manoeuvrability bikes in traffic have made them a popular choice across the cities of China. Manufacture of electric cars and vehicles has also become a mainstay of economic growth, climate action, and pollution prevention. China is now the world’s largest electric car maker and there are many start-ups across it that can compete successfully with Tesla in the electric car sector. The learning for India is two-fold when it comes to pollution-free vehicles. First, the curbing of excesses. There are just too many cycles in China and there are massive bike graveyards across the countryside. Before churning out or importing bikes it’s essential to have the infrastructure and regulation in space. Manufacture of such vehicles should meet demand not exceed it. Too much of even a good thing becomes bad as it is revealed in ancient Hindu text. Next, electric vehicles should be powered by renewable power, not the dirty, coal-dependent electric grid which defeats the purpose. Also, the electric cars should slowly substitute petroleum-fuelled vehicles and not just add to urban traffic. Road trains, electric buses that are being exported across the globe and showcased in green fairs the world-over, electric tuk-tuks (autos) as well as efficient trains dominate the automotive sector in China.

Chinese Green tech received a special citation as the World’s Best at the Sustainable Innovation Expo held in Nairobi, Kenya – the headquarters of United Nations Environment Programme. Instead of smart cities programme what India needs is low-carbon cities like the 8 success stories in China low-carbon city pilot programme. These are Tianjin, Baoding, Hangzhou, Chongqing, Nanchang, Guiyang, Xiamen and Shenzhen and have been expanded to include 5 low-carbon pilot provinces: Yunnan, Guangdong, Hubei, Shaanxi, and Liaoning provinces.

Finally, just like in India feeding the masses sustainably is a major concern and agriculture forms a significant part of the economy as it employs millions –especially in the rural areas. Agricultural innovation is also something India can learn from China. First, there is Stuart Oda of Alesca Life – the investment banker turned urban farmer. Concerned by the inefficiency of agriculture and the starving hordes of India Stuart Oda and his team researched for years before perfecting an aquaponics-based, climate-controlled, chemical-free system that can be installed in any urban space. Starting with farming in shipping containers to abandoned underground and overhead car parks near Beijing city centre. Although super-foods are the focus of this group, their efforts can tackle the micro-hunger crisis – the lack of nutrition-rich foods. On a general front, the organic plant-based residue developed by Chinese scientists when mixed in desert sand and supplied with less water than needed in usual agriculture results in high-yield fertile soils and successful crops in the desert. These are manmade oases that produce food sustainably.

Both India and China have similar environmental crises which are being pitted with economic growth. China has harnessed STI to come to the rescue and has devised a green growth strategy that’s acing in Sustainable Development incorporation. This could be an area of co-operation for these two Asian superpowers yielding many sustainable growth models from Chinese experience that can be tweaked for India.

[Ms. Raakhee Suryaprakash is a Chennai-based analyst and Associate Member, C3S. She holds a Master’s degree in International Studies and is the founder of ‘Sunshine Millennium’ focused on sustainable development and social issues. Views expressed by the author are her own and do not reflect the position of C3S.]

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