Tourists ride horses near wind turbines on the grassland in Zhangbei county, Hebei province, on August 15. China, currently the top emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, aims to reach net zero by 2060, requiring significant slashing of emissions. Photo: AP
The View
by Genevieve Donnellon-May and Mark Yoalin Wang
The View
by Genevieve Donnellon-May and Mark Yoalin Wang

Xi Jinping’s ‘Green Leap Forward’ will shape China’s environmental future

  • The Chinese leader’s support for environmental protection will ensure it continues to play a big role in domestic policy
  • While improvements to the environment testify to the government’s commitment to its green agenda, challenges remain to realise China’s aspiration of ecological civilisation
In laying out a vision for China’s next five years at the recent Communist Party congress, President Xi Jinping pledged support for environmental protection and promoting low-carbon industries, declaring the need for “harmony between humanity and nature when planning our development”.

His statements suggest that what has come to be described as a “Green Leap Forward” will continue to play a significant role in Chinese domestic policy.

China’s strong economic growth in recent decades has come at enormous environmental and ecological costs. In more recent times, Beijing has sought to improve the condition of the local environment and protect it from further degradation.

Since Xi assumed power, China has made tackling climate change a priority in domestic policy. A notable example was its commitment to the dual carbon goals of reaching peak carbon emissions by 2030 and making China carbon neutral by 2060.

A key aspect of the Green Leap Forward is Xi’s belief in the importance of environmental protection, as reflected in his “two mountains” saying. He first likened green mountains to gold mountains in 2005 when he was secretary of the Zhejiang Provincial Party Committee, to express the view that clear waters and green mountains are as valuable as gold and silver mountains. This view is reflected in domestic policies such as the national green development push, green agricultural development and other sustainable development policies.

Another significant aspect of the Green Leap Forward is the concept of an “ ecological civilisation”, a conceptual framework for sustainable development. This suggests that establishing a new civilisation based on ecological principles is necessary to overcome significant social injustice and global climate disruptions.
Under this framework, nature and humans are considered equals and live in harmony. It involves various reforms – economic, political, agricultural, societal, educational and others – to move towards sustainability. It is also linked to improvements in pollution and the implementation of a low-carbon economy and green development, further emphasised in the latest five-year plans set out by the Communist Party.
The concept also intersects with some of China’s other major national and global strategies, such as rural revitalisation and the “greening” of the Belt and Road Initiative. Xi has also said, “The construction of ecological civilisation is a great plan for the sustainable development of the Chinese nation.”

So far, the Green Leap Forward has made significant achievements in air and water quality, traditionally some of the most polluted areas in China. In addition to the establishment of the “river chief system” in 2016 by the central government, under which the number of water bodies with improved water quality has increased considerably, China’s water use efficiency improved from 88.6 cubic metres per 10,000 yuan (US$1,380) of gross domestic product in 2015 to 57.2 in 2020.

According to China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment, the country has made progress in several areas of its fight against environmental pollution. For instance, air quality in prefecture-level or higher cities improved from 81.2 per cent of days with “good or excellent air quality” in 2015 to 87 per cent in 2020.

The country’s water quality also improved, with the proportion of surface water with “fairly good quality” increasing from 66 per cent in 2015 to 83.4 per cent in 2020. This was 13.4 percentage points higher than the water quality target.

China has also demonstrated an interest in improving soil quality. In February, the State Council announced it would conduct a four-year survey of China’s soil.

Based on China’s current progress in dealing with environmental degradation within a short time, this suggests the Green Leap Forward is achievable, further supported by Beijing’s top-down environmental authoritarianism. While some other countries have scaled back their environmental commitments, partly because of the effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China has remained steadfast in its quest to realise its domestic environmental goals.
However, Xi’s Green Leap Forward is not without challenges. There are also social and economic costs to consider from this movement, potentially weighing on the country’s industries and manufacturing base, which have contributed to China’s rising income levels and social dislocation.


China scales back emissions target with half of new electricity use to come from renewables by 2025

China scales back emissions target with half of new electricity use to come from renewables by 2025

Another consideration is whether the overall concept of “ecological civilisation” can be achieved. At present, we can see the framework’s visible aspects are progressing much faster than the less tangible ones, such as issues of social injustice.

Although the central authorities have addressed the environmental protection aspect of “ecological civilisation” through various national and local targets, achieving other elements of the framework throughout the country could be more difficult to achieve.

For instance, if animals and humans are equals under the framework, what does this mean for animal rights and welfare in China? How could this affect domestic livestock farming and agricultural production?
With Xi having secured power for an unprecedented third term, his green agenda could significantly influence China’s development path by continuing to push the more visible aspects of the country’s green revolution. He will also hope China can showcase a new model of industrialisation to developing countries and shape the nature and pace of the global renewable energy transition and the fight against climate change.

Genevieve Donnellon-May is a master’s candidate in water science, policy and management at the University of Oxford

Professor Mark Yaolin Wang is a human geographer specialising in development and environmental issues in China