I Environmental policy, climate change, and ecological civilization


Meeting Sustainable Development Goals through a paradigm shift in the newly emerging world pattern

Pan Jiahua and Yang Xinran

The emerging world pattern and its implications for sustainable development

National circumstances differ, and each country must decide how best to implement the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), based primarily on its social, economic, and environmental conditions as well as its natural resource endowment (Pan & Chen 2016). Since the late 1980s, the world has initiated a shift away from ideological competition between the East (led by the former communist Soviet Union) and the West (headed by the US and its allies) towards global integration of the world economy. During the early stages of that process, the world was reshaped from a bipolar (capitalist vs. communist) divide into a tripartite structure comprising rich developed countries, countries in transition (Russia and Eastern Europe), and other developing countries. With the Eastern Bloc completing the transition from centrally planned to market economies and China accelerating its market-oriented reform process, the world now divides neatly into two groups: the rich developed and the poor developing countries, or in geopolitical terms, the North and the South.

While some formerly transitional countries such as Hungary and Poland and a few formerly developing countries like South Korea and Singapore have upgraded their level of development and been accepted as members of the rich countries’ club, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the South-North divide remained largely unchanged in the 1990s and the early 2000s. However, late in the 2000s and early in the 2010s, when a few large developing economies - China and India in particular - experienced a sustained period of high growth, a new group began to take shape, which we may call “emerging economies.” By contrast, most other less developed countries have maintained essentially the same status that they previously had with respect to their levels of economic development, population growth, energy consumption, and greenhouse gas emissions.

Now, as we enter the 2020s, a new world pattern is beginning to develop, the contours of which are becoming ever more strongly apparent (see Figure 1.1). In general, the incipient world pattern shows a shift from a simple South-North divide into three categories: the rich North, the newly emerging countries, and other developing countries. Although the less developed states share somewhat similar features, in particular a low level of economic attainment, the other two groups are not exactly the same. Within each of them, different prospects of and roads to development are readily apparent. In brief, the developed North displays two types of economies: one characterized by physical saturation and the other in a state of actual or potential physical expansion. The emerging economies group also contains two different types: those approaching physical saturation and those with the potential for large-scale expansion. These five types of economies will have highly different capabilities for meeting their SDGs.

To be specific, developed countries - also referred to as high-consumption countries - share comparable levels of economic development and high levels of consumption. Their per capita income may continue to grow, but as far as the basic necessities are concerned, their consumption level is largely saturated. However, in terms of both physical space for economic expansion and demographic trend lines, there are clearly two categories here. Europe and Japan represent one typical category, with limited or no physical space for economic expansion and stable or even declining population levels. It is easily understandable that a mature economy like that of an EU country or Japan would need to build more miles of highways or

A new world pattern emerging high-speed rail lines, because almost all of their land area has been utilized

FIGURE 1.1 A new world pattern emerging high-speed rail lines, because almost all of their land area has been utilized. As the population has stopped growing or even entered into a steady decline, there will be no need to construct many more new houses or manufacture greater quantities of other durable capital goods such as cars, although replacement or upgrading will take place. According to Japanese statistics, Japan’s population has been shrinking at an annual rate of between a quarter of a million and half a million people since 2016.' It is unlikely that such a trend will be reversed. In the European cases, immigration from outside the EU - especially from Muslim countries - may stabilize or even increase their populations, but the consequences will be more complicated. The other category of rich economies such as the US, Canada, and Australia have lower population densities and relatively higher levels (above zero) of population growth. That combination of factors would mean that a country like the US has plenty of space for physical expansion and will see an increasing demand for housing and durable capital goods like automobiles as its population continues to grow. The UN’s population statistics show that the US population increased from about 250 million in the 1950s to 320 million in the 2010s and is projected to reach 450 million by the end of this century. This suggests that the US economy is mature but not saturated.

After decades of high rates of economic growth, newly emerging economies have reached a level of higher middle income, larger than many other developing countries and with a prospect of continued increase, yet even their economies will remain at a substantially lower level of affluence than those of the developed world. China provides an example. In 2019, its per capita GDP reached USD 10,000, which is still less than 30% of the world average or the threshold of high-income countries.2 However, the projection is that China will continue its rapid growth and surpass the lower limit of the high-income economies by 2025 or thereabouts (Li et al. 2020). In China, the level of consumption remains low, relative to developed rich countries. According to the World Bank, in terms of automobile ownership per thousand persons, the number for China is less than 300 while the figure for the EU and Japan is over 550, with over 800 for the US. Due to the scarcity of land suitable for dwelling, most Chinese reside in multistory, high-rise apartment buildings with per capita living space averaging around 40 square meters, similar to the size that prevails in Japan but quite a bit lower than the European average and substantially lower than that of the US. As in Europe and Japan, space for physical expansion in China is limited, and population growth is peaking and will decline in the longer run. But over 600 million Chinese in rural areas remain at a very low level of consumption, and upgrading their living standards to match those of their urban counterparts would mean a substantial increase in demand for housing, automobiles, and other essentials, because the average rural income still amounts to only about a third of that enjoyed by urbanites.3 Like China, India is an emerging economy, though it is relatively less affluent and much less saturated in regard to physical infrastructure and levels of consumption. In 2019 China produced 996.3 million tons of raw steel while India produced only about 111.2 million tons.4 One can imagine that further increases

Population estimates in selected countries (1950-2100)

FIGURE 1.2 Population estimates in selected countries (1950-2100)

Source: United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2019). World Population Prospects 2019, Online Edition. Rev. 1.

in steel production may be minimal or even negative in China, whereas India will be expected to produce more in order to meet the demand required by its ongoing processes of urbanization and industrialization. In contrast to the stabilization of population taking place in China, high rates of population growth are expected for India; in fact, that country will surpass China to become the world’s most populous country in two or three more years and continue to increase until it reaches the 1.7 billion mark after the middle of this century. Clearly, all those additional people will need more housing and consumer goods. In general, the category of “other developing countries” includes many at a lower level of income and development but still with high rates of population growth (see Figure 1.2). That would mean that although these economies will be far from mature and saturated, their continued growth will be problematic. Indeed, they still will have to struggle to meet the basic needs of their citizens.

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