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Joyce Msuya, acting executive director of the U.N. Environment Program: "China has a lot to offer in terms of lessons, not least around climate change and beating pollution." (Photo courtesy of U.N. Environment)
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UN environment head: World should look to China for lessons

On plastic pollution, Beijing's recent moves are 'crucial to global efforts'

BANGKOK -- When Joyce Msuya, a Tanzanian microbiologist, World Bank veteran and acting executive director of United Nations Environment Program, spoke at its fourth assembly in March, she said, "This is the time to actually make a dent -- make a difference in the environment. ... Nature is not inexhaustible. It must be viewed as we do financial capital."

Msuya advocated waste reduction, reuse of materials, and rethinking production processes, and called on the world to move beyond fossil fuels: "They have served us well for centuries but we have technologies now, innovations, that will give the same result with minimum impact on the planet."

In an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review, Msuya answered questions about China's critical role.

Edited excerpts from the interview follow:

Q: What is the single most important lesson other countries should learn from China's environmental experience?

A: China has a lot to offer in terms of lessons, not least around climate change and beating pollution, and we look to share these types of lessons with other countries that are undergoing similar challenges. China's recent steps to curb single-use plastic and prevent the import of plastic waste are crucial to global efforts to address plastic pollution.

Q: What would you highlight?

A: I think a big takeaway is around development models. Other countries have seen the huge political and financial investment China has now put into rehabilitating its environment and are realizing how costly it is to "develop now and clean up later." When China first started to advance, renewable energy and other technologies that facilitate sustainable consumption and production, for example, were very expensive. Now the opposite is true, and we see China embracing a strategy that lets them grow and protect nature at the same time. China's experience with mass afforestation, for example, has particular relevance for other countries. Nature has to be at the very center of our development model because it is our best solution to climate change. China has realized this and other countries looking for lessons in China's experience would benefit from this realization as well.

"Other countries have seen [China's efforts] and are realizing how costly it is to "develop now and clean up later"

Joyce Msuya, acting executive director of U.N. Environment Program

Q: China has had a number of successes on the environmental front, but where is it still failing? What should its top priority be?

A: No country is winning on all fronts in efforts to protect the environment. It is not so much about where countries are failing, but more about what we can learn from each other's experiences. What we've seen with China is a sincere and large-scale effort to tackle their environmental challenges. In a country as large and populous as China, sustainability will not be accomplished overnight. The priority is to keep moving forward and pick up the pace across the board to achieve the vision of the 2030 agenda [on tackling poverty] and the sustainable development goals.

Q: Is China receptive to collaboration with U.N. Environment Program and other international environmental organizations?

A: China has been very willing to engage with U.N. Environment on a host of issues. We appreciate how eager and open both the government and China's business community have been to collaboration and advice. China has made it their explicit goal to achieve an ecological civilization, and U.N. Environment is here to support that, and ensure that China's experiences and advances can benefit both Chinese citizens and the global community.

Interviewed by Nikkei Asian Review associate editor Dominic Faulder

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