Dave Feickert: NZ and China - sustainable together

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China is the world's largest manufacturer of solar panels.  Photo / Thinkstock.
China is the world's largest manufacturer of solar panels. Photo / Thinkstock.

Trade Minister, Tim Groser, received good press in Beijing the week before last. Undoubtedly he had some excellent meetings. There would have been some frank discussions about the legal hiatus over the Crafar dairy farms purchase by Shanghai Pengxin.

There would, too, have been other discussions about Chinese investment in other parts of the New Zealand economy such as forestry, aquaculture, mining and perhaps in tourism, too. China has become the biggest source of imports to New Zealand, overtaking Australia and it has become our second biggest export destination. Trade between us is expected to double to $20 billion by 2015, if not earlier.

All this is something to celebrate. Our economic involvement in the Asia Pacific Region got off to too late a start but we can surely make up for it now, with India, Vietnam, Indonesia and other less traditional Asian markets as well as Japan, Malaysia and Singapore.

One new area where the New Zealand government and business should look for rapid growth possibilities is in green technology and methods, especially in China.

This will be a two way street, bringing huge benefits to both countries.

China is a country going through a tremendous transformation, from rapid industrialisation and urbanisation towards a new model of sustainability. The country has already reached middle income status, lifting 500 million people out of poverty, according to the World Bank in its latest report.

While the standard of living of millions of people in some of its big cities is not dissimilar to Auckland or Wellington folk, there are still millions of poorer people in the non-urban half of the population, in the countryside. There, sustainable agriculture is critical to China's further progress and we can contribute much.

The environment many Chinese people live in is not the same as our unique land, which is why so many of them are now holidaying in our country. Also, such a pace of development has brought with it large scale environmental problems and huge strains on natural resources, especially clean water. The World Bank report estimates that air and water pollution and soil degradation have cost China about 10 per cent of GDP over the past decade. However, in this report, written jointly with China's Development Research Center of the PRC's State Council, they have taken China's twelfth Five Year Plan as a structure.

The green economy is at the centre of both the Plan and the Bank's report. The new Five Year Plan, kicked off in March 2011, is the basic planning model the country has used for decades now. It recognises that to progress further, to become a high income country, a change in the growth model is required.

It is no wonder that Greenpeace has given critical praise to China's efforts. As the World Bank notes, China already has the largest capacity for renewable energy, has doubled its wind generation every year since 2005, is the world's largest manufacturer of solar panels, is a world leader in small hydro power generators and has the world's cleanest coal fired power plant, using supercritical boiler technology, doubling the thermal efficiency of older type plant.

Another part of the Five Year Plan takes the concept of 'reduce, reuse and recycle' further. A series of Cleaner Production laws has started to have an effect since 2002 with new pollution-free recycling of lead batteries and alloys and the beginnings of the recycling of cars and their parts. China will also start its own experiment with a 'cap and trade' scheme during the life of this plan.

What is really striking about China and other Asian countries is the way in which the wider population are caught up in the tremendous change going on. This is sometimes uneven. Sharp conflicts occur, as they do over land use, for example. Wages are rising, necessarily so if domestic consumption is to become a motor of economic development and because they produce a fairer society. Even this experience, we can learn from as China wrestles with the inequalities of wealth. We have a problem there, too.

But where we can benefit from our relationship with China is in rebuilding our own economy. As China moves higher up the value chain of production, the demand for our own quality products, which we are upgrading, will increase. This means something very real to every small town in New Zealand, not just to the Auckland conurbation. In my home town, Whanganui, there are now numerous firms doing business in China. Many more could also sell there. In clean and green tech we have as much to learn as to offer, but that is an excellent basis for a sound partnership.

China has no intention of 'buying New Zealand out', as some fear. Their investments are going everywhere, in order to build the living standards of their own people, not to colonise the rest of the world. Their past experience of 200 years of colonisation, with the Opium Wars, the European squabbles over trade concessions, the western gunboat diplomacy and the invasion by Japan, convinced them that they had to become self-reliant.

What we are seeing now is what was the world's biggest economy until 1800, claiming its place again. This is the march of economic development. The world is shrinking, even for China.

* Dave Feickert is a coal mine safety adviser who is often in China

- NZ Herald

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