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Sustainability, well-being, and the circular economy in China and worldwide



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Sustainability, wellbeing,
and the circular economy
in China and worldwide
Yong Geng
, Joseph Sarkis
Sergio Ulgiati
China’s dogmatic economic policies combined with
its idealistic environmental policies have resulted in seem-
ingly insurmountable environmental sustainability concerns
for the nation. Since China reopened to the world in the late
1970s, its economic growth trajectory has been unrivaled.
Simultaneously, China has moved from the periphery of
global environmental concerns to the center of environmen-
tal impact and visibility.
China has implemented dozens of national environmental
policy regulations over the past three decades. These
laws range from mandatory requirements, particularly for
industry, to voluntary measures with some exibility in
The circular economy (CE) is an environmental initiative
central to the “ecological civilization” strategy proposed by
China’s policy makers. The underpinnings of the CE regula-
tions were introduced more than a decade ago. They have
continued to evolve, leading to the release of the Chinese
government’s ecological civilization institutional reform
policy on September 21, 2015. CE has been selected as a
national development strategy, linking environmental and
economic development in a single policy instrument. More-
over, in response to various resource and environmental
challenges, a system for the accounting of natural resources
and ecosystem services, ecological compensation, and
market-based instruments for environmental management
has been adopted.
CE is a production and consumption paradigm eschew-
ing the “take, make, and dispose” linear economic pattern
(1). It foresees a new business model in which resource use is
optimized thanks to waste prevention, exchange, reuse, and
recycling patterns. It would include industrial ecosystems,
closed-loop supply chains, and broad-based recycling and
waste recovery. CE aims to increase resource efciency with
a focus on preventing and reducing urban and industrial
waste through exchange and reuse networks and behaviors
(2). In CE, decoupling of economic growth, resource use,
and environmental degradation is expected, with a simulta-
neous improvement in societal well-being.
Traditional CE-oriented strategies have relied on a waste-
management focus. More recently, CE goals have expanded
to preventative and regenerative eco-industrial develop-
ment (3). In this new vision, production and consumption
processes should focus less on degradation or partial
reclamation through end-of-pipe technologies, and more
on holistic transformation to incorporate quality-of-life while
dealing with emergent environmental issues. CE addresses
the need for a discourse on alternative growth, rather than
on alternatives to growth (2), while still advocating some
aspects of degrowth and the belief that unlimited growth is
impossible on a nite planet (4). Instead of quantity-oriented
growth models, quality is mandated (5). It is understood that
growth at any cost will create instability and the eventual col-
lapse of the system (6).
CE is exemplied by multiple planning and
implementation levels (2). The CE hierarchy includes
the microlevel (single process or single company),
mesolevel (industrial clusters or eco-industrial parks),
and macrolevel (from cities to national economies). Each
level requires different tools and policies. For example,
cleaner production, ecodesign, environmental labeling,
and green procurement are appropriate for microlevel CE
management. The mesolevel may use green supply chains
and industrial symbiosis, while the macrolevel uses micro-
and mesolevel tools within a broader policy strategy (e.g.,
eco-designing large-scale regulations and CE-oriented
incentive and tax policies).
The economic advantages associated with CE practices
are clear (7) as the country moves toward smart, innovation-
driven economic growth with minimal environmental
degradation (8). However, a true decoupling of economic
growth, resource use, and environmental impact has yet to
occur. It is crucial to identify a new economic and production
School of Environmental Science and Engineering, Shanghai Jiao Tong University,
Shanghai, China
Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Worcester, Massachusetts, USA
Department of Science and Technology, Parthenope University of Naples, Naples, Italy
School of Environment, Beijing Normal University, Beijing, China
Corresponding Author:
model to help maintain China’s growth and development,
while simultaneously preventing the nation from becoming a
global environmental pariah.
A number of characteristics of China’s economy and poli-
cy planning make it a good candidate for CE. First, pollution
is a major issue, affecting the daily quality of life for a large
portion of the Chinese population. Second, the Chinese
economy is still growing, which allows for the redirection
of efforts and the addressing of miscues. Third, China has
comprehensive national ve-year plans that coordinate na-
tional and local policies, potentially making implementation
easier. Finally, China’s CE conceptualization is an important
dimension of national policy, providing a framework and a
motivation for innovative economic models.
Overcoming China’s CE challenges
The road to CE success will not be smooth. Concerns
related to community and individual consumption, institu-
tional and physical infrastructure, technology development,
effective management metrics, and broadening awareness
still remain.
Community and individual behavior that results in the
increased use of materials, and the corresponding increase
in emissions, needs to be addressed. It is essential to pro-
mote responsible consumption. Governmental leadership
concerning consumption practices can provide an important
impetus for CE. The government can play a role in reaching
the necessary critical mass in consumption demand that will
support the development of markets for green technologies,
products, and services (9). Green products and services
prioritization in procurement contracts, the establishment of
standards and criteria for green consumption, development
of a green procurement incentive system, and mechanisms
for assessing the performance of green products and ser-
vices are all needed.
The infrastructure for an institutional and physical CE still
FIGURE 1. Distribution of national eco-industrial parks (EIPs), CE industrial parks (CEIPs), and low-carbon industrial parks
(LCIPs) across China.
needs further development. In China, the government is the
primary institutional agent for CE. Unfortunately, a variety
of competing programs and regulatory initiatives exist.
Various governmental agencies have initiatives to promote
CE at the industrial park level, including eco-industrial park
(EIP) projects from the Ministry of Environmental Protection,
low-carbon industrial park (LCIP) projects from the Ministry
of Industry and Information Technology, and CE industrial
park (CEIP) projects from the National Development and
Reform Commission. EIPs are mainly positioned in East
China (Figure 1), while LCIPs and CEIPs are spread through-
out the country, although some locations do overlap. Each
ministry has its own institutional infrastructure for project
qualication, demonstrating the lack of an integrated effort.
There are many redundancies in these programs. In addition
to intra-agency concerns, conicting institutional practices
among Chinese provincial and municipal governments lead
to poor management and even to inappropriate CE efforts
by industry.
Physical and operational infrastructural challenges occur
at multiple CE levels. A purposeful redesign of infrastructure
needs to be completed for effective CE implementation.
Industrial- and municipal-level infrastructure for the
collection, sorting, disassembly, and storage of materials
and goods over the entire logistical chain is required, but
is currently almost nonexistent (10). Informal economies
are already in place for used materials and goods such as
electronics and automotive vehicles, but replacing these
with more formalized physical and operational systems
is still a long way off (11), and introducing such systems
without harming lower-income workers is a major social
There are opportunities for CE in certain regions of China,
especially Western China, where the regional physical infra-
structure is relatively immature and underdeveloped. This
situation makes CE easier to implement, as infrastructure
disruption will be minimized compared to more developed
regions. Within certain economically disadvantaged areas,
CE policies are likely to provide a more equitable regional
balance for economic development.
Technological needs are related to physical infrastructure
concerns. China’s CE policy incorporates ecological
modernization principles (7), and ecological modernization
theory posits that technological innovation can decouple
economic growth and environmental degradation.
The importance of technology and of developing CE
technological capabilities is not lost on the government.
Chinese agencies have provided nancial incentives for
broad CE technological innovation, including energy
savings and pollution reduction. Much of this CE technology
R&D has occurred through demonstration projects.
However, the diffusion of new technologies across industries
and EIPs has yet to occur (12). In addition, government
nancial incentives for technology demonstration projects
are primarily targeted at the industry level, with less support
at the EIP or regional CE levels. This approach has resulted
in isolated “islands of excellence” and local optimization
of CE efforts. Instead, a broad-based CE technology plan
that functions at all levels of CE is recommended. CE should
target broad sectors including industry, agriculture, and
forestry (13). Urban municipalities are also important agents
for CE (14).
Assessing and monitoring
CE progress at all levels needs proper assessment and
monitoring. Adoption of CE can be aided by integrating
performance evaluations and accounting approaches for
complex systems with multiple social and environmen-
tal dimensions. Finding suitable performance indicators
for investments that support CE-oriented demonstration
projects can help policy makers to quantify benets, costs,
and bottlenecks over the entire process chain (15). Evidence
has shown that current performance indicators may be
inadequate for evaluating CE system performance, result-
ing in unintended negative consequences (16). Developing
innovative evaluation indicators can aid CE programs move
toward sustainability.
Unidimensional indicators, although based on energy
and material ow accounting as well as ecological foot-
prints, provide a compartmentalized understanding of the
systemic, closed-loop feedback features of CE patterns
(15). These indicators were not designed to evaluate the
complex networks or diversity and environmental quality of
CE resource ows, and therefore may not properly consider
systemic optimization. New CE-oriented indicator systems
incorporating network analysis (17) and energy accounting
(5, 15) can aid Chinese policy makers and provide generaliz-
ability to international CE efforts.
Awareness and capacity building
Awareness and understanding of CE principles among
various stakeholders is still limited. Government ofcials
can and should develop appropriate training materials
and programs to further improve CE awareness in the local
community and private industry. These efforts to provide
stakeholder information and build knowledge capacity
are needed to increase nancial and community support.
Awareness-building programs should also be developed
and provided to governmental ofcials, the public, and
investment organizations. A common platform for sharing
information and enhancing communication among stake-
holders would be helpful.
Our research has focused on observing how CE has been
implemented in China, including the concerns that have
arisen and how they have been overcome. Overall, our work
has indicated that policy makers, managers, and communi-
ties will need to prioritize potential solutions using techno-
logical, operational, and economic feasibility evaluations in
order to see successful implementation of CE.
Conclusions and next steps
China’s attention to the natural environment is at a critical
juncture. If the country falters, the earth may be damaged
for generations to come. China has been rening its CE poli-
cy, aiming to decouple economic growth and environmental
degradation. As such, it can be seen as an experimental
laboratory for the world as it embraces CE throughout its
economic and biophysical systems.
In a world where environmental degradation is increas-
ingly less acceptable, competitive advantages will arise for
those nations and industries that integrate environmental
stewardship into their economic or business strategies.
Optimization of resource use is an important factor in de-
creasing production costs and attracting environmentally
concerned domestic consumers. CE is a much-needed com-
petitive strategy for China if its export-oriented industries
are to compete globally.
China’s environmental regulatory policies are expected to
internalize external environmental costs (such as the social
cost of polluting the air and water) by mandating stronger
regulatory enforcement and by placing increased attention
on China’s natural ecosystem, viewing it as a service rather
than a free commodity, thereby fullling the UN Millennium
Ecosystem Assessment goals (18). The implementation
of CE will be in the interests of both national and local
communities. However, CE should not to be considered
only as an environmental protection tool, but as integral to
rethinking the nation’s current economic model.
Command-and-control policies are not the only instru-
ments available. National and supranational governmental
agencies can collaborate with industry organizational supply
chains, both local and global, to aid in the spreading of CE
practices. Good initial targets include sectors where circular
production patterns can be easily designed and implement-
ed such as agriculture, metal recycling, and infrastructure
for resource exchange. Innovative and exible economic
policy instruments that encourage reuse and recycling, while
discouraging the use of nonrenewable resources, can aid
CE implementation. Signicant nancial support is needed
to develop CE as a new economic model. However, gross
domestic product and other monodimensional indicators
are unlikely to be appropriate measures of successful CE
implementation, highlighting the need for new and purpose-
fully tailored systemic optimization targets and multicriteria
Information and know-how are important CE resources.
Support for knowledge development through various
scientic agencies, such as the National Natural Science
Foundation of China, is needed to further enhance innova-
tion, knowledge acquisition, and technology developments
within CE. Furthermore, the acceptance and support of
stakeholders is necessary for their full involvement in CE
planning and implementation.
China’s foreign trade policy may evolve in different ways
in response to globalization and international agreements to
implement and regulate so-called free market areas. Some
features of international free trade agreements and treaties
are likely to displace local economies and negatively affect
the environmental integrity of some nations. CE has the po-
tential to apply knowledge-driven innovation, resource use
optimization, and environmental support to address these
CE promotes a pragmatic, innovative, and environ-
mentally conscious business model for China and the world.
If it is implemented effectively, economic development
without environmental degradation will be a realistic
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This work is supported by the National Natural Science Foun-
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contributed equally.
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With increasing environmental issues and depleting resources, the effective application of green government procurement (GGP) is urgently needed and potentially can have greater impacts in the developing world rather than in the developed world. Such an approach can help promote the general goal of sustainable development and address environmental issues through purchasing and facilitating the use of environmentally friendly services and products. This paper addresses this issue by employing a case study on China. We first trace the development of the GGP concept, its spread to Asian countries, and a number of approaches used to expand GGP adoption. We then review current practices in China on GGP, and analyze and identify some of the current barriers and problems in promoting green procurement in the Chinese governmental sector. We finally seek to identify possible appropriate capacity-building solutions, in order to facilitate the application of GGP in China.
Background, aim, and scopeThe availability of fossil resources is predicted to decrease in the near future: they are a non-renewable source, they cause environmental concerns, and they are subjected to price instability. Utilization of biomass as raw material in a biorefinery is a promising alternative to fossil resources for production of energy carriers and chemicals, as well as for mitigating climate change and enhancing energy security. This paper focuses on a biorefinery concept which produces bioethanol, bioenergy, and biochemicals from switchgrass, a lignocellulosic crop. Results are compared with a fossil reference system producing the same products/services from fossil sources. Materials and methodsThe biorefinery system is investigated using a Life Cycle Assessment approach, which takes into account all the input and output flows occurring along the production chain. This paper elaborates on methodological key issues like land use change effects and soil N2O emissions, whose influence on final outcomes is weighted in a sensitivity analysis. Since climate change mitigation and energy security are the two most important driving forces for biorefinery development, the assessment has a focus on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and cumulative primary energy demand (distinguished into fossil and renewable), but other environmental impact categories (e.g., abiotic depletion, eutrophication, etc.) are assessed as well. ResultsThe use of switchgrass in a biorefinery offsets GHG emissions and reduces fossil energy demand: GHG emissions are decreased by 79% and about 80% of non-renewable energy is saved. Soil C sequestration is responsible for a large GHG benefit (65kt CO2-eq/a, for the first 20years), while switchgrass production is the most important contributor to total GHG emissions of the system. If compared with the fossil reference system, the biorefinery system releases more N2O emissions, while both CO2 and CH4 emissions are reduced. The investigation of the other impact categories revealed that the biorefinery has higher impacts in two categories: acidification and eutrophication. DiscussionResults are mainly affected by raw material (i.e., switchgrass) production and land use change effects. Steps which mainly influence the production of switchgrass are soil N2O emissions, manufacture of fertilizers (especially those nitrogen-based), processing (i.e., pelletizing and drying), and transport. Even if the biorefinery chain has higher primary energy demand than the fossil reference system, it is mainly based on renewable energy (i.e., the energy content of the feedstock): the provision of biomass with sustainable practices is then a crucial point to ensure a renewable energy supply to biorefineries. ConclusionsThis biorefinery system is an effective option for mitigating climate change, reducing dependence on imported fossil fuels, and enhancing cleaner production chains based on local and renewable resources. However, this assessment evidences that determination of the real GHG and energy balance (and all other environmental impacts in general) is complex, and a certain degree of uncertainty is always present in final results. Ranges in final results can be even more widened by applying different combinations of biomass feedstocks, conversion routes, fuels, end-use applications, and methodological assumptions. Recommendations and perspectivesThis study demonstrated that the perennial grass switchgrass enhances carbon sequestration in soils if established on set-aside land, thus, considerably increasing the GHG savings of the system for the first 20years after crop establishment. Given constraints in land resources and competition with food, feed, and fiber production, high biomass yields are extremely important in achieving high GHG emission savings, although use of chemical fertilizers to enhance plant growth can reduce the savings. Some strategies, aiming at simultaneously maintaining crop yield and reduce N fertilization application through alternative management, can be adopted. However, even if a reduction in GHG emissions is achieved, it should not be disregarded that additional environmental impacts (like acidification and eutrophication) may be caused. This aspect cannot be ignored by policy makers, even if they have climate change mitigation objectives as main goal.
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