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From big green to low carbon – China's failing green projects

BEIJING – Like politicians all over the world, Chinese officials have been quick to grasp the political and economic benefits that come with embracing the green tech movement. In recent years press releases from every governmental level and stories from domestic and foreign media alike have gamely reported on the broad steps China has taken to create greener, low carbon cities.

How surprising then to hear that many of these projects have failed, often spectacularly.

In an interview with the always informative China Dialogue, Jiang Kejun, a senior researcher from the Chinese government’s Energy Research Institute, offered a frank assessment of the nation’s low carbon city movement, noting that the “per-capita emissions in Chinese cities are two or more times those of western cities.”

According to Jiang, the prevalence of heavy-polluting industries in Chinese cities compared to developed nations and a “rural view of modernization” by urban planners in China are leading causes for this failure to create true low carbon cities:

“You can describe our current approach to city building as entirely mistaken. Look at Beijing – it’s all wrong, from the buildings to the roads to the planning of zones. We build huge buildings but use little of the space. From the 1990s to 2005, Beijing encouraged car use. “Transportation development” just meant increasing average traffic speeds, for example from 14 kilometres per hour to 15 kilometres per hour. Another target is road surface area: officials are judged on how much the area devoted to roads has increased, and the more that happens, the less space there is for bikes and pedestrians.”

The idea of low-carbon experimental cities is one that has captured the attention of government officials from Shanghai to Kunming. In recent years, a slew of high-profile projects has been announced in conjunction with promises by foreign architecture and green tech firms to make China a laboratory for the next generation of sustainable technology.

However, aside from the promotional bump that came with their initial announcements, few of these projects produced practical living environments.

Dongtan was one such failure. Marketed as the proverbial eco-city upon a hill by local government officials and its British design firm partner, the island city was slated to be constructed just off of Shanghai as an example of sustainable living. By 2050, developers boasted it would grow to be the size of Manhattan with an expected population of 500,000 people.

Originally announced in 2005, Dongtan was expected to have its first phase open in time for the recently completed Shanghai Expo. Little progress has made beyond the opening of a tunnel connecting Dongtan to Shanghai.

Other prominent failures include the Huangbaiyu project in China’s northeastern Liaoning province, which was supposed to create an energy-efficient farming community by building homes using custom designed bricks made of special hay and pressed-earth.

Instead, due to cost overruns with the special bricks, many of the homes were built using conventional carbon heavy materials. Furthermore, houses were constructed with insufficient space for farmers to raise livestock and oddly enough, with garages -- despite the fact that none of the farmers owned cars.

With these examples, Jiang suggests that China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection needs to change the guidelines for what constitutes a low carbon city. Since government officials in China advance through the party ranks via a draconian system of meeting economic and societal targets, a change in that rubric to include greater emphasis on green issues could rapidly change the way urban planners approach this push towards a low-carbon cities.