China and India: Toward a sustainable world

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Science  31 Jul 2020:
Vol. 369, Issue 6503, pp. 515
DOI: 10.1126/science.abd4723

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An Indian army convoy drives near the disputed Himalaya border between India and China.


In light of current political tensions at the China-India border (1), the two countries should consider their shared purpose and the mutual benefits that would result from cooperation. Both countries face environmental challenges at global, regional, and local levels, and both have the capabilities to be global leaders in providing environmental solutions. We urge the governments of China and India to facilitate science diplomacy, starting with the Himalaya region.

Both countries have made environmental progress a priority in recent years. China and India rank first and second in greening the Earth as measured by increases in leaf area index since 2000 (2), and both are highly ranked in solar and wind-electricity generation (3). China has implemented a series of programs to assess and conserve biodiversity and ecosystems (4), and India has launched a national mission on biodiversity and human well-being (5).

Despite these potential opportunities, new restrictions have been placed on scientific collaboration between China and India, and the exchange programs between their national academies have ground to a halt (6). Cultural and linguistic differences, as well as political tensions such as the unresolved border disputes, create barriers to collaboration even at international meetings where both countries are represented (7).

Now is the time to boost bilateral collaborations. China and India should put policies in place to facilitate collaborative environmental research that moves them closer to meeting their United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, as they did when they agreed to promote a circular economy at the Sixth China-India Strategic Economic Dialogue (8). Organizations from both sides of the Himalaya should come together and establish joint research centers on the environment of the region and climate change adaptation and mitigation, similar to the coordination between institutes in Kunming and Guwahati (9). Such initiatives need to be scaled up through renewed partnerships between the national academies for joint long-term research programs as well as through coordinated dialogue in international forums, where other parties that have good relations with both countries can help foster their cooperation.

The shared Himalaya, a region with extraordinarily rich biodiversity, ice fields, and water, is threatened by some of the highest hydroelectric-dam densities and climate change rates in the world (10, 11). Long-term ecological security is more important than ongoing border disputes over desolate, high-altitude lands that may be best suited as peace parks (7) or nature reserves (12). Science diplomacy on environmental issues in the Himalaya could increase the possibility of sustained peace along the international border and allow the two superpowers to lead the world toward a sustainable future.

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