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People ride bikes in the bicycle lane on a road in Binjiang district, Hangzhou city, East China’s Zhejiang province, on March 31, 2017. According to the UN, over the past decade, Hangzhou government has been improving bike-friendly infrastructure, such as lanes and traffic signals created solely for cyclists, and has provided almost 86,000 public bicycles. [Photo/IC]

Country praised for "significant strides" it has made in addressing environmental problems

World Environment Day, celebrated in more than 100 countries, is the United Nations" day for encouraging international awareness and action to protect the environment.

Every World Environment Day has a different host country, and this year"s host is China, with the official celebration taking place in the eastern city of Hangzhou on Wednesday, in the presence of senior Chinese government officials and Joyce Msuya, acting executive director of the UN Environment Programme.

This year"s theme is air pollution, and the UN is calling on governments, industry, communities and individuals to act to explore renewable energy and green technologies and improve the air quality in cities and regions across the world.

In a preannouncement story on the UN News website, China was praised by the organization for the "significant strides" it has made to address poor air quality.

"Although the rapid development of many Chinese cities has led to poor air quality, and associated health problems for many citizens, the country has made significant strides in addressing the problem in recent years," the story said.

China was once considered the "Kingdom of the Bicycle," with bikes dominating city streets across the country, but over the past four decades, China"s dramatic increase in economic prosperity and urbanization has seen many people move to motor vehicles as their primary means of transportation, contributing to a marked deterioration in air quality.

In Hangzhou, once described by the Italian explorer Marco Polo as "the finest and most splendid city in the world", air pollution was well over the World Health Organization"s safe level.

However, in a bid to improve public health and the environment, the Hangzhou authorities have put a renewed emphasis on cycling, which, allied with digital technology, is helping to cut pollution.

According to the UN, over the past decade, the local government has been improving bike-friendly infrastructure, such as lanes and traffic signals created solely for cyclists, and has provided almost 86,000 public bicycles. A smart card allows users to easily access all forms of public transport, from bikes to boats to buses.

"All together there have been 760 million rides; that"s almost half the population of China," said Tao Xuejun, general manager of the Hangzhou Public Bicycle Service. "So far, more than 400 cities in China have adopted our project. Our dream is to promote our model across China and all over the world."

As well as leading the Chinese cycling resurgence, Hangzhou is home to an innovative way to encourage more sustainable lifestyles, with an app that is helping to stop desertification, cut air pollution and plant millions of new trees.

The story introduced the "Ant Forest" mini-program, a Hangzhou-based project from Chinese payment app Alipay. It incites users to make small, environmentally friendly decisions in their daily lives, such as cycling rather than driving to work, or recycling clothes.

When users perform any carbon-reducing activities, they are rewarded with "green energy" points. As they accumulate enough virtual points, a real tree is planted.

UN news wrote, according to Ant Financial, more than 100 million trees have been planted, thanks to the low-carbon actions of 500 million individuals, roughly 5 percent of the world"s population.

Beijing"s fight against haze was particularly praised by the organization.

"The concentration of fine particulates in the air has fallen by a third over the past two decades, beating the target set by the Chinese State Council," it wrote.

"Beijing has achieved impressive air-quality improvements in a short amount of time," said Dechen Tsering, director of UN Environment"s Asia Pacific Regional Office. "It is a good example of how a large city in a developing country can balance environmental protection and economic growth," she stressed.

In a message to mark World Environment Day, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres emphasized the link between worsening levels of air pollution and the climate crisis.

In the video address released on Tuesday, Guterres said that with the environment facing "unprecedented perils", caused by human activity, action to fight climate change is "the battle of our lives" that must be won by taxing pollution, ending fossil fuel subsidies and halting the construction of new coal plants.

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