Debris and plastic litter found off Christmas Island, Australia. Photo: Reuters
Wang Huiyao
Wang Huiyao

China can be the unifier the world needs to tackle environmental crisis

  • As a rising power in global governance and an advocate of multilateralism, China is well placed to be a driving force in lead global environmental management
Our oceans are choking on plastic waste. At the recent G20 summit in Osaka, world leaders took an important step to addressing the issue by reaching an agreement to eliminate additional pollution by marine plastic litter by 2050. 

With multilateralism under threat and global governance reform deadlocked, the Osaka Declaration was a major breakthrough. It shows that, despite current tensions around trade and technology, environmental issues can provide a common ground to revive multilateralism.

Indeed, nothing shows the need for global cooperation more than environmental threats. Rivers, oceans and pollution meander across national boundaries. Too often, cooperation does not. Rich or poor, no country can escape environmental issues or tackle them alone.

Since the 1950s, humans have produced about 830 million tonnes of plastic, of which nearly 80 per cent has gone into landfills or the natural environment, according to estimates by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.

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Microplastic particles are a particular concern, absorbing large amounts of bacteria before being ingested by marine animals and eventually ending up in the human food chain.

As well as threatening biodiversity and human health, plastic waste hurts the marine economy, which supports millions of people around the world in fishing, tourism and related industries. Some countries and localities have introduced rules to combat plastic waste, but with the world’s oceans all connected, local efforts are futile without coordinated global action.

As a rising power in global governance and an advocate of multilateralism, China is well placed to lead global environmental management. It can help to clarify respective responsibilities and move towards a common goal of cleaning our oceans. Not only would this alleviate marine pollution and protect biodiversity, it would also enhance China’s international standing as a responsible power and aid its transition to a more sustainable development path.


Furthermore, China’s contribution to climate change management has shown that it can play a key role in environmental governance. It has also helped to change international perceptions that China’s development has come only at the expense of the environment – the latest data from Nasa for example shows that China’s contribution to global vegetation cover increased by at least 25 per cent over the past 17 years.

At the same time, like many other countries, China faces severe problems due to marine pollution. As the world’s most populous country and locus of many global supply chains, steps to reduce plastic waste in China will have a large global impact.

Those steps should start at home. In 2008, measures were brought in to limit plastic waste such as plastic bags. China can now work towards banning harmful disposable plastic products outright, joining the ranks of countries such as Kenya and Rwanda that have already done so.

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China can also use its influence to galvanise international action on marine litter, building on the Osaka Declaration, the ongoing WTO talks on global e-commerce rules and the upcoming 2020 UN Biodiversity Conference. In particular, this could involve promoting concrete targets for plastic reduction that can eventually be incorporated into an international convention.

Of course, our pollution problems go far beyond plastic. Yet, if the scope of our environmental challenges is vast, so too is their potential to act as a cohesive force for international cooperation.


Starting with marine waste, China should take the lead in building on the new green consensus to reinvigorate multilateralism. China can benefit itself and the world by making green issues a priority in global governance and partnership building. After all, when it comes to the environment, we are all in the same boat.

Wang Huiyao is the founder of the Centre for China and Globalisation, a Beijing-based non-governmental think tank