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China is the Greenest Government: The Importance of Counterfactuals

Game, Eddie 8/6/2012

“You know, TNC and other conservation groups should get together and give the Chinese government an award for the One Child Policy.”

Well that’s one way to break a moment of Peking-duck-induced reverie. I heard TNC’s China Director, Shuang Zhang, make this pronouncement recently over dinner in Beijing.

The One Child Policy (mandating that Chinese couples each have no more than one child) has reflected the Chinese government’s recognition of two factors: 1) its country’s finite natural resources, and 2) that living more sustainably is good for economic prosperity (an idea that still seems anathema to Western macro-economic policies). But has the policy qualified China as a “green” country? I had been in Beijing a few days and was yet to see the sky through the smog.

The answer rests on the counterfactual. What would the world look like if China hadn’t implemented the One Child Policy?

Well, to start with, China would have a lot more people today — somewhere between 100 and 400 million more.1 (Exactly how many more is hard to say, because it depends on assumptions about the background trend in birth rate. 400 million assumes that birth rates remained close to 1970s levels, while 100 million assumes they would have fallen steadily anyway. Certainly by the time the policy was introduced in 1979, Chinese birth rates were already on their way down due to aggressive government campaigns advocating later marriage and wider birth spacing.)

If we assume that the One Child Policy has led to a moderately conservative 200 million fewer people today, what does that figure mean in terms of avoided environmental impact? Let’s focus just on the impact of not feeding those extra people (arguably, the Chinese government’s key motivation for the policy). calculates that feeding a typical person in the UK each year requires 0.36 hectares of land. A typical Chinese person has a more modest diet than a UK resident, with fewer total calories and far less red meat — and so requires something closer to 0.23 hectares per year. Assuming those extra 200 million didn’t trigger massive improvement in the efficiency of agriculture and food distribution, feeding China with them today would require a massive 46 million hectares of additional farm land.

Just take that in for a second. That is more land than the entire state of California. Or, for non-U.S. folks, a land mass nearly the size of Spain.

The point is not that governments around the world should be trying to forcefully control birth rates, but that I can’t think of any other government ever that has asked so much of it citizens in service of the environment. Even giving the Chinese people credit for epic stores of Confucian tolerance, the One Child Policy has required massive sacrifice of personal rights for societal gain. Let’s be honest. Stand aside Norway; China is the greenest government.

Can’t picture a portrait of Deng Xiaoping gracing TNC’s DC foyer?

The view of China as green beyond all others jars with colloquial references to pollution in its cities and rivers. It also rubs against professional opinion; the Yale Environmental Performance Index ranks China 116th in the world in terms of environmental policy. Why?

It’s hard to overestimate how our ignorance of counterfactuals biases our judgments, especially regarding environmental issues. The value of any action or intervention should be judged not on what the outcome looks like, but how different the outcome would have been in its absence.

For example, Australia has made some pretty impressive commitments to national park establishment. What would have happened in their absence? Arguably, not a great deal different. Many of the areas were subject to very little exploitation anyway, and Australian governments have shown themselves willing to open national parks to resource extraction when the reward is high enough. This doesn’t mean that establishing national parks is not a valuable contribution to conserving natural heritage and something that Australians should be proud of (I am). But when we target our conservation investment and effort, we should always think about the counterfactual.

Counterfactuals will inevitably take the gloss off some of our trophies (like finding out the other competitors were disqualified), but the good news is that they can also help turn what appears to be a mediocre conservation success into a substantial one. For example, some of our water fund work is only likely to hold the current ground with regard to catchment degradation — but when considering what would have happened in their absence, this might be considered a roaring success. Hopefully next time you fly through the Beijing smog, all you’ll see is green.

By Eddie Game, conservation planning specialist, The Nature Conservancy

Image: Beijing in sun and smog (photos taken about a week apart). Image credit: Ulrich Thumult/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

1 Hvistendahl, M. 2010. Science 329:1458-1461.