"But what about China?" That's one argument often put when Greens sit down to debate the need for dramatic action to cut greenhouse gas output in the West from their opponents. The line runs that since China's economy and greenhouse gas output is growing so fast, and its population is so vast, that there is no point in doing anything in the West, at least until the Middle Kingdom signs up for considerable restrictions on its emissions.
But what is the state of environmental thinking in China? At a London School of Economics Environmental Initiatives Network seminar this week, the editor of the website China Dialogue, Isabel Hilton, attempted to answer that question.
She said that much-touted "new city" of Dongtan was typical of the top-down environmental model now being applied in China. If you spoke to the senior leadership and read the 11th Five-Year Plan you'd feel good about China's moves on sustainable development, she said. That plan represented a substantial change in direction from the 10th, which although it set a few environmental targets, all of these were missed and there were no consequences.
The 11th Plan by contrast represented a rebalancing of growth model - the terminology was of working "towards a harmonius society" At the official level that's fine, and also encouraging is the view on the street. The general view is clearly that the environment needs to be cleaned up.
Where the problem lies is in the middle levels of officialdom. Ms Hilton spoke about Anwei province, which has a huge coal industry that has caused enormous environmental damage about which there is great local concern. But the businessmen who run the companies that run the mines aren't worried, because of course they don't live in Anwei province, and the environmental damage doesn't affect them.
"The 'development first, environment second' Jiang Zemin model is still held very widely across the country," Ms Hilton said. For most Chinese, pollution was the price you have to pay for prosperity. Memories of hunger and deprivation were still strong.