December 4, 2022
Ithaca, NY


Americans should take lessons from China about sustainability

Marian Brown, professor Allen-Gil and professor Swenson can be forgiven for missing the many indicators of how the Chinese value sustainability. The Chinese have been practicing sustainability for centuries. Their challenge is articulating to Americans — in English, no less — concepts that are almost second nature to them.

Beyond coal, China is light-years ahead of the U.S. in sustainability in almost any category. It already generates 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, versus 14 percent in America.  China may generate 23 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases, but that is 25 percent of the per-capita amount generated by Americans.

Sustainability in China manifests in what is not there. In Shanghai, only about 5 percent of residents own automobiles, 97 percent of residents rely on bicycles, buses or metros for commuting. In stark contrast, Americans own about one car for every citizen over 18, and 88 percent of Americans commute to work in private vehicles.

With relatively few cars in a megacity like Shanghai, many neighborhood streets serve pedestrians first and cars second. Major downtown commercial streets, like East Nanjing Road in Shanghai, have been converted from arterials to pedestrian malls.
Americans should look more closely at China’s ambitious efforts toward a sustainable future. Yes, the Chinese have a long way to go, but they recognize this. They can also teach us along our own way to sustainability.

George Frantz, visiting lecturer, Department of City and Regional Planning at Cornell University