Greening Chinese cities for a sustainable future: What's next?

Aug 26, 2019
9 MIN. READ
As the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, China sees the need to pursue sustainability goals at full force. But how can it support a growing urban population at the same time?

Quick construction, the latest technology, and a strong understanding of infrastructure are driving smart city development in China. But are these factors enough to make truly sustainable cities?

Sustainability has different dimensions that depend on natural, physical, social, and economic characteristics. China must keep these in mind while encouraging the education and behavioral change needed to support such approaches, ensuring they are understood and valued. In the next phase, China has a particular opportunity to enhance its development by embracing more nature-based solutions.

Unstoppable urbanization

Like the rest of the world, urbanization has increased significantly in China. Shanghai is currently one of the world’s largest cities with 24 million inhabitants. About 60% of China’s population lives in cities and, by 2050, this is expected to rise to 80%—or about 1.2 billion people. Given the massive size of the country, it is not surprising that there’s a program of construction and renovation for 338 new and long-standing cities.

The sheer numbers help illustrate why cities are instrumental in driving national growth and progress on economic and sustainability fronts. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) sees the positive potential, with five of China’s largest cities contributing about 15% of national GDP—roughly three times the share expected from their population.

Turning brown to green

China, like other developing countries, has grown its economy from the 1980s on traditional ‘brown’ manufacturing and industries that rely on fossil fuels. As the largest consumer of energy and top emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, China recognizes the value of transitioning towards a more environmentally-sustainable growth model and a green service-based economy.

Progress and challenges in China so far

Much depends on the existing character of a city and how far it has already gone to implement sustainability policies. It is easier to design and build from scratch than try to retrofit a metropolis—particularly with energy-efficient buildings.

We’ve seen China make progress, namely:

  • Carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP in 2017 were 46% lower than the 2005 level, and the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption stood at 13.8%, on track to reach the target of 15% by 2020.
  • The forested area and forest stock volume increased respectively by 21.6 million hectares and 2.2 billion cubic meters compared to the 2005 levels.
  • The installed capacity of hydropower in 2018 stood at 352 gigawatts, 200% higher than in 2005.
  • The installed capacity of on-grid wind power in 2018 was 184 gigawatts, and for solar power this figure was 175 gigawatts, both starting from close to zero in 2005.

While these advances have helped economic growth, the lived experience of China’s population is impacted by a range of acute social and environmental issues. For example:

  • Traffic jams are frequent.
  • House prices are skyrocketing.
  • Public services are under severe pressure.
  • Arrivals from rural areas without urban residency documents often have trouble accessing them.
  • Air and water quality have declined to the point where many cities are struggling to provide citizens with sustainable living environments.

These pressures led the China State Council to announce the National New-Type Urbanization Plan (2014-2020). The aim is to encourage cities to embed green and low-carbon strategies in development plans, e.g., providing convenient, comfortable, and efficient public transport. The plan also bolsters better and more affordable housing and utilities, as well as other public services.

What’s next for sustainability in China?

China recognizes the benefits of a greener economy. In 2015, its National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) published a set of green bond issuance guidelines to encourage this shift. Green urbanization was firmly embedded, but even so, the definition of ‘green’ omits some key features. Much of the country’s recent development has addressed the need to integrate employment areas into living areas and improve transport. Yet, there is room for further integration of nature-based solutions.

Over the last 15 years, numerous watercourses, forests, and other vegetation have disappeared to make way for China’s city construction projects. Some areas of wasteland are painted green instead of planting actual vegetation, suggesting that they are more suitable as a car park.

Fortunately, China is beginning to review its ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to city construction, where it builds vast roadways despite just 17% of the population having a car. Many cities are introducing greenways and cycle paths. To take it a step further, China could add more green spaces to support the wellbeing of residents.

Work highlight: Greening Vietnam

Thanh Hoa Province is situated in the north-central part of Vietnam and is the fifth largest province in the country, with more than 3.5 million inhabitants. To meet its unique goals, the USAID Low Emissions Asian Development (LEAD) program provided support to Thanh Hoa’s local government, implemented by ICF.

The team conducted stakeholder consultations to facilitate the development of the plan. Identified solutions included:

  • prioritize the allocation of public land and water space to quickly develop and enhance green spaces and water access in the urban areas;
  • encourage the investment and development of green space projects in urban areas, resort zones, industrial parks, and industrial complexes;
  • issue standards for minimum green space in new urban areas; and
  • encourage communities, businesses, and households to mobilize local resources for greening urban landscape.

The needs of the local population could take higher priority when creating plans. Even Chengdu’s park city program—which is shaping it into an attractive, green, and desirable place to live—has been criticized for demolishing older areas and relocating residents. There is a risk that increased wealth and economic growth from greening cities could come at the cost of equality and higher living standards for all.

It is essential to involve residents and administrators to make spaces ‘people-centered.’ Encouraging more small-scale neighborhoods to be sensitively introduced within large cities could better meet local needs and significantly improve quality of life.

Opportunities for greater impact

The urban heat island effect can adversely impact health, and poor stormwater management can lead to flooding and damage. Places like California are championing green infrastructure, where the Trust for Public Land’s (TPL) Climate-Smart Cities Program is helping develop multi-benefit green infrastructure in underserved neighborhoods.

TPL focuses on four climate-smart green infrastructure objectives proven to reduce carbon emissions and promote resilience:

  • Connect: Connect walk-bike corridors and public transit at the city and regional scales to maximize potential mode shift toward carbon-free and resilient transportation options.
  • Cool: Use specially-designed urban greenspaces, high-albedo surfaces, and strategically-sited shade trees to lessen the energy use and human health impacts resulting from the urban heat island effect.
  • Absorb: Use wetlands, “water smart” parks and playgrounds, green alleys, and other permeable surfaces to recharge local aquifers, curb stormwater runoff pollution and localized flooding, and reduce the energy required for public water treatment.
  • Protect: Create integrated networks of strategically-sited waterfront parks and living shorelines, such as wetlands, to buffer cities from sea-level rise and storm surge, river-bourne flooding, and other related inundation threats.

These low-carbon strategies result in numerous health and community co-benefits by improving air quality, enabling active lifestyles, reducing heat-related illness and death, and increasing connections with the community.

Green infrastructure can also play an integral role in helping Chinese cities achieve their goals of limiting or peaking carbon emissions. Transit networks created by green alleys can reduce petroleum use in vehicles, while green spaces and urban tree canopies can address energy efficiency, carbon sequestration, and climate resiliency.

Mimicking traditional alleyways—like those torn down to make way for development—is a nascent but innovative effort to create pathways to connect areas of the city for cyclists and pedestrians in China. The aim is to make them the hubs of street life, where people can gather to relax and chat over street food.

In many cities, the beneficial effects of green roofs and walls have led to growth in their use. While the environmental and aesthetic benefits of green infrastructure are obvious, what has become more apparent are the productivity benefits. Exposure to nature, even within the constriction of an urban environment, can help workers be more productive—and productive workers are good for the economy. It also offers benefits like reduced stress.

Natural systems help manage water too. Sustainable urban drainage systems (SUDs) usually incorporate biological features to both slow down water runoff and help to purify the water. They may include ponds that offer pleasant areas for social use and enhance biodiversity. Biological systems are critical to the treatment of wastewater and help reduce treatment needed for drinking water. Some cities have adopted integrated systems that help treat wastewater by integrating biological treatment systems in city infrastructure.

Another innovative idea is the development of Shanghai’s “sponge city.” It is a pilot scheme to address the potential flooding issues of coastal cities. Instead of funneling away and discarding water, green sponges soak up the excess, which is then used for replenishing water supplies, irrigating gardens, or watering local farms. More evidence-based research would be beneficial to support the rollout of these creative solutions across China, but they show great potential.

Green finance and investment

As a positive response to the 2015 Paris Agreement, China has taken the initiative to align financial resources with low-carbon development. This effort is recognized and included in its 13th Five-Year Plan, and seven central ministries published guidelines for establishing a green financial system in 2016.

Since its launch into the green finance market, China has set up five pilot zones to explore different approaches. This would be a good time for the government to develop green finance standards and establish greater transparency about what constitutes a green project. Such guidance could foster a greater perception of trust and integrity and provide a framework for accountability. There’s cooperation between the UK and China in this area, e.g., the UK-China Green Finance Task Force and the BEIS International Climate Finance Technical Assistance Programme. But, it could be developed further.

China has additional opportunities for future growth. A recent International Finance Corporation (IFC) report mentioned the potential for “climate-smart investment” in China of almost $15 trillion between 2016-2030. Of this, $12.9 trillion is for construction of new green buildings. In addition to the green buildings sector, the IFC highlighted development prospects in transport and waste.

Chinese cities making eco-strides forward

Both Beijing and Shenzhen are significantly reducing their energy consumption as participants in China’s Alliance of Pioneer Peaking cities. These cities are working to improve the energy efficiency of their building stock, which ICF summarized recently on behalf of the Hong Kong Business Environment Council.

Beijing is leading the way by phasing out all coal-fired power stations within its limits and embarking on an extensive campaign to convert household heating from coal to gas. This progress is largely due to concerted efforts to reduce the impact of air pollution in China’s capital. According to a Tsinghua University report, the average intensity of energy used for heating buildings in northern China—the area surrounding Beijing—dropped by 39% from 2001 to 2016, owing to the improvement in insulation and heating systems.

Shenzhen, meanwhile, uses its green image and credentials to attract international talent. It was also the first Chinese region to introduce an emissions trading system in 2016.

A 46-hectare landfill site in Wuhan, a city in central China, was transformed into a beautiful park with a large lake as part of a garden expo. The principles of this large-scale success could be applied to nature-based solutions in smaller urban greening projects.

Clean technology provides much higher value per unit of investment than heavy industry. Pollution has a health cost as well as environmental implications. As such, Shanghai has openly discussed de-prioritizing GDP as a measure of economic achievement. It is prepared for industries to relocate outside the city due to environmental regulation, based on a favorable cost-benefit calculus.

Optimism for embedding natural systems

China manages urban development using a top-down and bottom-up approach, ensuring overall policy is followed while also factoring in local issues. This should allow it to integrate additional natural systems into city development more effectively than many other countries. As it does in numerous arenas, China has the opportunity to show what sustainable smart cities can achieve, especially for other emerging economies.

Collaboration, best practices, and partnerships

China should continue to collaborate, share ideas, encourage research, and bolster proven techniques with potential partners. The UK, Europe, and other international actors are already taking steps to transfer their knowledge of resource efficiency, innovative technology, and energy-efficient buildings and standards.

Partnerships can provide useful approaches for engaging regulatory, legal, and policy bodies so that solutions develop as planned. Training and education will help promote policies for greening opportunities as well—especially those that directly benefit city populations.

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By Huw Slater
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