Around the world, sustainable development has become a top policy issue as countries struggle to achieve economic growth without compromising the future. Nowhere is the matter more pressing than in China, where urban areas and their economies are expected to grow rapidly over the next few decades and resource use and environmental quality are already grave concerns. National and local leaders have responded by making sustainable development a priority.
Using a new metric—the urban sustainability index—we have found mixed results for this nascent effort.The index revealed a significant gap between the best- and worst-performing Chinese cities across a number of indicators. China’s current model of urban growth does not meet global benchmarks for sustainability, but some cities offer positive examples that could be copied elsewhere in the country and in other developing markets.
We turned to China as a test bed for our index partly because of the country’s staggering rate of urban growth. The McKinsey Global Institute has estimated that the urban population there will expand from about 600 million in 2008 to 926 million in 2025 and more than one billion in 2030. In addition, information from China’s National Bureau of Statistics has become more detailed, reliable, and available in recent years. Finally, the creation of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, in 2008, and other recent initiatives suggest that China’s leaders understand the urgency of the issue and have begun to respond.
To discover underlying trends, we evaluated 112 Chinese cities selected by the national government as the focus of sustainable development and collected data about them for the years 2004 to 2008. Without doubt, cities in China generally lag behind those in developed countries on most sustainability measures, though many show progress and the best are improving rapidly. By primarily comparing China’s cities with one another, we weighed policy successes and failures in urban areas that have similar financial constraints, policy environments, and experiences. Such conditions can be found throughout the developing economies, suggesting that the index may have broader applicability.
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Jonathan Woetzel is a director in Mckinsey’s Shanghai office.