The Greenest Country on Earth?

What country should be recognized as the greenest on earth?

How about…China?

I recently had a moment of Peking-duck-induced reverie broken when a colleague made this statement: “You know, The Nature Conservancy and other conservation groups should get together and give the Chinese government an award for the One Child Policy.”

The One Child Policy (mandating that Chinese couples each have no more than one child) has reflected the Chinese government’s recognition of two factors:

  1. Its country’s finite natural resources.
  2.  Living more sustainably is good for economic prosperity (an idea that still seems anathema to Western macro-economic policies).

But has the policy qualified China as a “green” country? I had been in Beijing a few days and was yet to see the sky through the smog.

The answer rests on what is known as the counterfactual—what would have happened if China had not adopted this policy?

And what would the world look like if China hadn’t implemented the One Child Policy? 

Well, to start with, China would have a lot more people today — somewhere between 100 and 400 million more. (Exactly how many more is hard to say because it depends on assumptions about the background trend in birth rate. Four hundred million assumes that birth rates remained close to 1970s levels, while 100 million assumes they would have fallen steadily anyway. Certainly by the time the policy was introduced in 1979, Chinese birth rates were already on their way down due to aggressive government campaigns advocating later marriage and wider birth spacing.)

If we assume that the One Child Policy has led to a moderately conservative 200 million fewer people today, what does that figure mean in terms of avoided environmental impact?

Let’s focus just on the impact of not feeding those extra people (arguably, the Chinese government’s key motivation for the policy). calculates that feeding a typical person in the UK each year requires 0.36 hectares (.89 acres) of land. A typical Chinese person has a more modest diet than a UK resident, with fewer total calories and far less red meat — and so requires something closer to 0.23 hectares (.57 acres) per year.

Assuming those extra 200 million didn’t trigger massive improvement in the efficiency of agriculture and food distribution, feeding China with them today would require a vast 46 million hectares (nearly 114 million acres) of additional farm land.

Just take that in for a second. That is more land than the entire state of California.

The point is not that governments around the world should be trying to forcefully control birth rates, but that I can’t think of any other government that has asked so much of it citizens in service of the environment.

Even giving the Chinese people credit for epic stores of Confucian tolerance, the One Child Policy has required massive sacrifice of personal rights for societal gain.

Let’s be honest. Stand aside, Norway: China is the greenest government.

The view of China as green beyond all others jars with colloquial references to pollution in its cities and rivers. It also rubs against professional opinion; the Yale Environmental Performance Index ranks China 116th in the world in terms of environmental policy.


It’s hard to overestimate how our ignorance of counterfactuals—how things would have been if an action wasn’t taken–biases our judgments, especially regarding environmental issues. The value of any action or intervention should be judged not on what the outcome looks like, but how different the outcome would have been in its absence.

For example, Australia has made some pretty impressive commitments to national park establishment. What would have happened in their absence?

Arguably, not a great deal different. Many of the areas were subject to very little exploitation anyway, and Australian governments have shown themselves willing to open national parks to resource extraction when the reward is high enough.

This doesn’t mean that establishing national parks is not a valuable contribution to conserving natural heritage and something that Australians should be proud of (I, an Australian, am).

But when we target our conservation investment and effort, we should always think about the counterfactual.

Hopefully next time you see a picture of Beijing smog, all you’ll see is green.

(Photo: Beijing smog. Credit: Kevin Dooley under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.)

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. The point about considering “counterfactuals” is a useful one. But the argument presented here is environmentalism devoid of moral or ethical context. The one child policy, which has led to, among other things, the killing of many unwanted female babies, is not an example of the better future world that we in the environmental community should be praising or working together to achieve.

  2. Hi Rob. You are right to point out that environmentalism can pose some very challenging ethical issues. The killing of unwanted female children is certainly a tragic and potent image, and the most common riposte to discussion of the policy’s achievements. Such actions cannot be defended. Nor were they accepted as inevitable in China; there was near continual policy adjustment to try and avoid such tragic consequences (for instance, allowing rural families who had a daughter first to have a second child).

    Simply dismissing the one child policy as an amoral and unethical response to resources shortage is akin to dismissing the American constitution as amoral and unethical because so many children in the United States have been killed by guns. In both cases, the death of children is a perverse, tragic and avoidable outcome. Is it the result of intentionally inhumane and amoral policies? No.

    Even purely on the grounds of ethics, it is difficult to pass a black or white judgement on the one child policy. Could the avoided clearing of an area the size of California potentially have saved hundreds of thousands of lives? How many additional rural Chinese might have died in famines, or just as insidious, grown up malnourished? What would the consequences of accelerated climate change and more natural disasters have been for poor populations around the world? What ecosystem services have been delivered through 46 million hectares of intact ecosystems? It does the environmental movement no favours to avoid such difficult discussions in the hope of a utopian future.

    The natural biases at play in the way we judge the humanity of the one child policy are significant. As the Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert points out in an article in Nature, we make poor decisions about risk when there are morals involved. We spend huge global resources on airport security that might save a small number of lives, when the same resources could definitely save 100,000’s lives if used towards basic health issues like vaccinating against influenza. Which is more ethical? Gilbert ascribes part of this phenomenon to innate sensitivity to social interactions, which speaks directly to the case of judging the one child policy; “It is bad to be harmed, but it is worse to be victimized.”

    1. Well said Eddie! Bravo. How can anyone ignore our responsibility to future generations, which may require acts of selflessness, not by just large corporations, but individuals. Asking people to have less children, could insure that their childrens’ children have a safe and healthy environment to exist in. The “American Dream” need not be denied to future Americans. But it is indeed in question. Americans must remember the challenges faced by the people who migrated to this country 200 years ago. They risked their lives to obtain and build a free country. How things have changed. Today, Americans consider little more than their own comforts and luxuries, and any sacrifice which threatens such is considered an attack on their constitutional rights. Grow up Americans, get off the couch and smell the CO2. 😉

  3. I was recently visiting Shanghai I noticed there were no 2 stroke motorbikes anymore only quiet electric scooters.
    I was told that the govt had banned the petrol bikes can you imagine the outcry in the west if such a move were contemplated.
    Our beloved Democratic freedoms sometimes let us down when we most need them

  4. The problem here is we assumed that the killing of female babies are by the government and not the people. Being from a Chinese background myself (although not from china), I understood what it meant. It wasn’t the government who wanted these female babies to suffer, it was because the people wanted boys. The traditional viewpoint of most Chinese family in the past was to have males as an inheritance issue, to continue our line of blood so to speak (my own mother still believe that boys are more important than girls). The One child policy, was a model based on the Singaporean government’s two child policy. It is not the fault of the government, who did not foresee the people who decided to take their own daughter’s life. The adjustment was made by the government, for more children if you have a daughter, after mass killing by the people for their daughter’s life. Would it be the fault of a government, or would it be the fault of the people in such instances? Yes, the one child policy is good for the environment, it was a population control issue. The main reason behind it, was because china is worried about the resources it needs to feed the people. China is stuck between a rock and a hard place when it made such unpopular decision. What would happen if China has not controlled its population, it will be like India these days, where there are a lot of beggars (even children on the street). Which is worst? Population control, or let the population control your destiny?

    The entire South East Asia is polluted, for what reasons? It was because of the people being brought up (the next generation), to be developed country, like the western country we see on TV, to have nice clothes, to have nice cars, to have things that we never used to have. Is it faulty to sacrifice the environment for other benefits? We gain something, we loose something. Unless we are willing to give up something, we cannot save the environment.

  5. I am Chinese. And I am the only child in my family. What is happening to the children and the families under this policy? To me, I felt lonely when grew up. How eager am I to have a brother or sister to grow up with? I can learn how to share and to love in a different way that I can never ever try before. Now look, it is widely agreed that the new generations under the one child policy are self-willed, rude, dishonest,lack of motivation for living and careness for others. Why? Because we are the only child, who have all love and the best things offered as our families can.

    I am not against the one child policy because China has no choice. Even now, the land can’t feed us all. I am here to be the voice of the victims who is spoiled by the policy, in speaking to those who really make population control to be a must.

    According to Global Footprint Network, China is consuming 1.18 earth, while the US is eating 4.16 earths. It is obvious that the life style of developed countries is resource consuming and environmental unfriendly. Yet industrial globalization is driving such form to other countries. We ask for more beef and more crops, but more than half of them go to dustbin, because the developed ones do that too. We use plastic products and let them stay in the Pacific Ocean forever, for convenience and hygiene that the developed told us. We are chasing high profit and efficiency to keep pace with industrialization as the developed countries did/doing. Sometimes I wonder who defined ‘development’ and put countries into two catagories? The concequence is that the developing countries are doing their best to become “developed” following the same path which I think is completely destroying the earth and human beings themselves. Yet who get the benefit of this process, the developing ones or the developed?

    Please, stop saling and advertising such life style to the developing countries. Please take back the cars, the skyscrapers, the junk food, the Apple (and your factories too) and all so-called luxuries.

    I don’t know how to judge who is greener or not. But we are sharing the planet. It would be worse if China didn’t have one child policy. It will be worse if we refuse to change the life style, stop consuming too much, spare resource to others and to the future. I wish, the one child policy is not needed someday.

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