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Agenda 21 is the voluminous policy document that emanated from the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. Using a brief case study of China’s energy use—specifically its use of coal—this article illustrates how the objectives of Agenda 21 are reflected in China’s economic development policies and practices. We address these kinds of questions: Has China endeavoured to implement environmentally sustainable development, as reflected in the chapters of Agenda 21? What does the case of energy use tell us about the utility of Agenda 21 objectives in China and other developing countries? What are some of the political and economic factors that influenced this process? More broadly, what does the Chinese case tell us about the implementation of voluntary international environmental agreements in the developing world? We conclude that China has been stimulated by Agenda 21 and other international instruments, along with other factors, to shift its economic development toward a more environmentally sustainable trajectory, as reflected in its changing policies on energy derived from coal burning. However, because economic growth remains central to development goals, these policies are only a start toward environmentally sustainable development. Environmental decline still outpaces sustainable development.


CAPS Working Paper Series No. 131 (15/02)

Recommended Citation

Harris, P. G., & Udagawa, C. (2002). Dirty coal: Voluntary international environmental agreements and sustainable development in the People's Republic of China (CAPS Working Paper Series No.131). Retrieved from Lingnan University website: