Global sustainable development in a digital future – China’s key role

By Mohan Munasinghe (People's Daily Online) 09:59, September 07, 2021

Editor’s note:

The China International Fair for Trade in Services (CIFTIS), themed on “Towards Digital Future and Service Driven Development”, is being held in Beijing from Sept. 2 to 7.

Digital Economy and Carbon Neutrality are two major topics that have been widely discussed during this year’s CIFTIS. A digital service exhibition zone has been set up this year for the first time, covering 11,000 square meters, while services featuring green and sustainable development have also become highlights for this year’s event.

Professor Mohan Munasinghe, a well-known scholar who delivered a keynote speech about “Digital trade and technology (DT&T) for Sustainable Development in a post-COVID world” at CIFTIS, shared his opinions with People’s Daily Online on China’s achievements in sustainable development, as well as the key role China is playing in the digital economy and trade in the international arena.

Professor Mohan Munasinghe is the recipient of the 2021 Blue Planet Prize, and former vice chair of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that shared the 2007 Nobel Prize for Peace. He is also chairman of the presidential expert commission on the Sustainable Sri Lanka 2030 Vision, distinguished guest professor at Peking University, China, and honorary senior advisor to the Government of Sri Lanka.

In the post-pandemic world, digitally enabled trade will be an important mechanism through which all countries might pursue peaceful cooperation to achieve sustainable development, including economic prosperity, social harmony and environmental protection. At the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, almost 30 years ago, I unveiled a holistic framework for sustainable development called “Sustainomics”. One basic principle was the balanced and integrated treatment of the sustainable development triangle, involving economic, social and environmental dimensions. Since then, sustainomics has been taught and applied in various parts of the world, and provides a useful platform to understand the growing importance of digital technology and trade (DT&T).

China is a good example of a world leader seeking to practically achieve sustainable development, by following the Balanced Inclusive Green Growth (BIGG) path, based on Sustainomics, which is socially inclusive and pro-poor, environmentally green and economically prosperous. As an old friend of China, who has visited here regularly to teach for almost 50 years, I have personally witnessed its steady progress towards sustainability, and tried to aid this transformation in my own small way. For example, in the mid-70’s, I taught courses to senior officials of the Ministry of Electric Power Industry, and even in those early days renewable energy was keenly discussed. In the 2000’s, I gave courses for many years to senior officials of the China Meteorological Agency (CMA), on climate change and sustainable development. Currently, as senior international advisor to the China Academic Committee on Responsible Management Education, sponsored by the United Nations, I am helping them to educate the next generation of business leaders in the top management schools in China, about sustainable and ethical business practices.

In recent years, China has systematically implemented policies that have improved sustainability. Within the country, from the viewpoint of economic development, China’s growth has been the major driver of the global economy over the past three decades. From a social perspective, China’s performance has also been outstanding -- eradicating poverty and raising almost a billion people out of poverty. Finally, environmental issues that have emerged are now being addressed responsibly, including climate change. Recent initiatives towards sustainable governance are also commendable, including the elimination of corruption, and encouraging the pursuit of ethical goals like the “common prosperity” among the business community, to facilitate another round of social wealth redistribution and inequality reduction.

Internationally as well, China has shown leadership. China strongly supports the sustainable development goals (SDG) and 2030 Agenda, universally endorsed at the UN in 2015. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) unveiled earlier by President Xi in 2013, is an important multi-country vehicle for promoting sustainable development and the SDG along the BIGG path, throughout the world -- especially in the poorest countries. It is a multi-trillion dollar programme linking 172 countries and international organizations that will pursue policy coordination; facilities connectivity; unimpeded trade; financial and industrial integration; and people-to-people bonds, while enhancing cross-country cultural harmony and social ties; developing new standards for communications and energy technology; facilitating cross-border trade flows; and promoting multi-currency transactions.

My own country, Sri Lanka, which is situated along the maritime Silk Road connecting east and west, hopes to benefit from the BRI, having had two major ports (Colombo and Hambantota) developed with Chinese assistance. In 2019, I chaired the Presidential Expert Committee on Sustainable Sri Lanka 2030 Vision and Strategic Path, which presented a report to the President of Sri Lanka, describing our own BIGG path. The report clearly states that: “By 2030 Sri Lanka hopes to become a sustainable, upper middle income, Indian Ocean hub with: (1) an economy that is prosperous, competitive and advanced; (2) an environment that is green and flourishing; and (3) a society that is inclusive, harmonious, peaceful and just. We will follow the middle path based on balanced inclusive green growth.”

A recent official document, The CPC: Its Mission and Contributions, published in 2021 on the 100th anniversary of the Party, elaborates further on how sustainable development will be practically promoted, both within China and worldwide. It seeks to “ensure that economic, political, cultural, social and eco-environmental development is of higher quality, more efficient, more equitable, more sustainable and more secure, so that the people will enjoy a greater share of its benefits”, and to “build a global community of shared future and a better world.”

Many developing and emerging countries are looking for practical ways to achieve sustainable development. They are more likely to be convinced by China’s very real recent progress, rather than the performance of richer countries, where the dominant economic model of oligopolistic capitalism is undermining sustainability. It appears that unsustainable social values (including greed, corruption and confrontation) have encouraged economic mal-development (including inequality, over-consumption by the rich, and excessive debt). This process is worsening environmental harm and depleting natural resources, worldwide. The resultant conflicts over scarce natural resources has worsened greed, violence and disunity, thereby creating a destructive feedback loop, which perpetuates an unsustainable cycle.

The power of digital trade

The Forum on Trends and Latest Developments of Digital Trade, in which I have participated, is an important part of the China International Fair on Trade and Services (CIFTIS). It is a timely event that highlights digital trade. I’m quite certain that the CIFTIS will provide a means to help identify and resolve many of the emerging issues.

Digital Trade broadly includes all trade in goods and services based on digitally-enabled transactions of both digital and physical products that link consumers, producers, and governments. Digital technology is the fundamental platform that makes digital trade possible. Digital Technology and Trade (DT&T) will be a major driving force in reviving the post-pandemic global economy, and China will play a key role as the economic powerhouse of the world, champion of open trade, and leader in digital technology.

COVID-19 has accelerated the growth of digital technology and touchless transactions, while greatly enhancing the scale, scope and speed of digital trade – through increases in efficiency and reductions in costs. It is clear that the post-pandemic growth of digital trade will help resuscitate the global economy by accelerating the recovery of damaged global supply chains and creating more livelihoods.

Undoubtedly, DT&T will yield both benefits and risks, as we move forward. The economic gains include increased productivity and growth, and greater variety of goods and services. Economic risks include widening the gap between the rich and poor (both within and between countries), greater risks of macroeconomic instability (e.g., due to unpredictable shifts in financial and trade flows), and fiercer competition and risks for firms in a rapidly evolving business environment.

Social benefits include more employment and income (especially for the poor), increased participation and empowerment (via improved communications, social media, etc.), and greater access to information. Potential dangers include greater exclusion of the poor and increasing inequality (accessibility, relevance and affordability), destructive use of information, and more marginalization of indigenous knowledge and reduced cultural diversity.

Finally, environmental advantages include reduced natural resource use through more efficient production, and improved technologies for pollution management. Risks arise from the generation of more economic growth that causes uncontrolled consumption and production, leading to more pollution and natural resource use; and more digital hardware production that is also material-intensive and causes more pollution (during e-waste disposal processes).

For governments, the growth of DT&T in a post-COVID-19 world will entail new challenges. First, defining and measuring digital trade. Second, managing the rapidly growing international flow of packages (from online orders). Third, managing security risks (including cyber- & bio-risks, drug/terrorism-related activities, etc.). Fourth, adapting and applying existing trade rules and imposing restrictions. Fifth, levying taxes and tariffs with new business models and technologies that generate novel combinations of goods, services and delivery methods. Sixth, harmonizing regulations across countries and regional trading blocks. Seventh, ensuring the sustainability of DT&T impacts.

Digital technology itself can help improve sustainability. First of all, it can generate environmental, social and economic data along supply chains, and use this data to minimize environmental and social harm, while maximizing economic gains. Second, it can improve the circular economy, by reducing waste, recycling and redistributing waste for alternative use (e.g., food waste). Third, technology products could be designed to minimize technological waste and improve recyclability. Fourth, digital technology can be used to increase consciousness and encourage innovation that promotes sustainable digital trade in goods and services on an even larger scale.

As a global digital technology leader, China is becoming a super-connector that enhances east-west and south-north links, thereby facilitating global sustainable development along the BIGG path. By helping to better connect sustainable consumers and sustainable producers in the digital marketplace, digital trade can accelerate the growth of sustainable lifestyles and behaviours, and make the world a better place for us all, as well as for future generations.

Finally, DT&T will facilitate the BRI and help the ongoing transition to a more sustainable, peaceful and harmonious, multi-polar world order, built on mutually cooperative power centres like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), G77+China, G20, EU, etc., relying on soft economic power and mutually beneficial trading relationships, facilitated by the use of multiple global currencies (CNY, EUR, JPY, USD, etc). Most countries would welcome such a shift away from the existing system that often relies more on hard military power, punitive sanctions, and a single global currency (ie., USD). Such a trend towards a more sustainable and conflict-free planet will be universally welcomed, given that even while COVID-19 ravaged the world in 2020, global expenditures on armaments rose to almost USD 2 trillion compared to a meagre USD 161 billion for official development aid. 

The opinions expressed in the article reflect those of the author, and not necessarily those of People's Daily Online.

(Web editor: Hongyu, Du Mingming)


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