The country has a chance to continue on its environmental path, beyond the Games and the borders of its capital.
Beijing’s skyline is sprouting some incomparable profiles. Alongside the mad dash to complete construction of gravity-defying, 50-plus-story buildings before the Olympic Games begin, architects from all over the world have created fantastic, environmentally friendly venues for the events.
The Bird’s Nest, a tangle of ovoid steel housing the main stadium, will be powered by solar photovoltaics. The Water Cube that shelters swimming and diving venues has internal systems to capture and recycle 80% of the water from the building’s roof and pool outwash.
Recycled water, provided by General Electric, will flow through the Olympic Village’s streams and water its plants. Researchers from Sweden are working to make a biodegradable plastic for foodservice plates, cutlery, and storage in time for the Games. Planned composting or even incineration of food and other waste will help to control the trash—and possibly create energy, too.
And, Olympic organizers hope, a herculean effort to remove industrial emissions—even if it means moving industrial sites away from China’s capital host city or simply shutting them down for a period of time—will mean that Beijing will have clean air by August.
This green showcase is part of China’s carefully orchestrated effort to demonstrate to the world how environmentally progressive it can be. The question is whether China will be able to sustain its green campaign after the Olympic Games end—and beyond the city limits of Beijing.
Some China observers cautiously predict that the country will succeed. As evidence, they cite the current leadership’s national agendas and the rush to find technological solutions to China’s well-publicized environmental problems.
Inside the dragon’s nest
Positive prognostications for China’s environment may come as a shock. The country still burns more than 22.7 quadrillion Btu of coal a year for electricity and energy for its industrial sector, according to the International Energy Agency; this consumption makes China an extreme greenhouse gas emitter.
Eutrophication has saddled its waterways with dense green algae or invasive water plants. And many of China’s waterways have been completely redirected or dammed in massive projects, such as the South–North water transfer and the Three Gorges Dam.
As rural residents move to cities to seek employment, more and more buildings are erected to house these internal migrants, and some of this construction takes place at the expense of farmland and wildlife habitats. To control the loss of farmland, the government imposed taxes on arable land used for other purposes at the beginning of the year, according to the state press, which reported a loss of more than 300,000 hectares in 2007. Accompanying the building boom is an increase in cement production, which increases China’s greenhouse gas emissions because the process relies on coal and petroleum coke for energy. According to Wang Lan of the China Building Materials Academy, China’s cement industry produced 1 billion metric tons (t) of cement in 2007; that translated into 0.95 billion t of emitted CO2. (Cement production’s total contribution amounts to about 5% of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.)
In addition, China’s energy use and water degradation have skyrocketed in the past decade. The nation has experienced an astounding 9% growth rate in about that time frame, and some estimates put the rate during the past 2 years at 11% (developed countries are happy if they achieve a 2–3% growth rate). Although energy use per capita in China is currently less than a quarter of what an American uses, China’s citizens now strive for middle-class lives, and they are slowly accumulating the goods that go along with living like middle-class Americans.
Observers typically point to estimates of car ownership: though cars were once a luxury item in China, 6 million new ones could be on the road this year, according to one estimate from China Daily, an official state press publication. In Beijing alone, 1000 new cars are registered every day, according to the UN Environment Programme.
To get clean air in Beijing for the Olympics, the government has issued draconian limits on automobile use in the city during the Olympics, at least temporarily. It has also required steel plants and other air polluters to move their manufacturing sites. China closed more than 1000 old cement plants last year to halt their emissions. Such heavy-handed control measures might serve Beijing well in the short term. But in the long term, China needs regulatory incentives and better enforcement to curb pollution and energy use.
Changing the dragon’s direction
In the past decade, the country has had to acknowledge that it has a massive onslaught of environmental problems, and China’s leadership is attempting to change the country’s course. As of May 1, companies with histories of environmental pollution must report their emissions under a set of new information rules. Those rules include directives that forbid banks to make loans to companies that are not green.
The measures are not law per se, but a specialist on China’s environment and social development, who is with an international consulting group, is optimistic. The consultant (who wished to remain anonymous) notes that government spending on environmental protection has increased during the past few years, as has media coverage of environmental issues in China. “[It’s] what people are talking about, [and it’s] becoming more and more common in daily conversation,” the consultant says.
Another indicator of change that observers emphasize is the elevation of the State Environmental Protection Administration of China (SEPA) earlier this year to the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), which is at the national level. That transformation from a small department int
o one of the fastestgrowing administrations in the Chinese government is a signal of how important environmental issues are.
Whether that elevation in profile makes a difference remains to be seen. So far, plans to expand the personnel for MEP may be just talk, says Dan Guttman, an environmental lawyer based in Hong Kong. The U.S. EPA has sent over squadrons of scientists and lawyers to assist MEP and has helped the organization set up a system of regional offices similar to the regional EPA offices in the U.S. The goal is for U.S. and Chinese offices that oversee similar ecosystems to work together. (For example, EPA Region 9 in California partners with a geographically similar region in China that has a coastline and mountains.) But as Guttman points out, EPA has more than 17,000 employees plus outside contractors. China has 4 times the number of citizens and more pollution per capita, yet MEP has only 300 workers in Beijing and perhaps 30 people in the field for each region. Some support comes from affiliated research institutions, but the ministry remains lean. Many of China’s central ministries are lean, but some are quite powerful.
Furthermore, China’s central rules do not have the same force as U.S. or European laws. China’s central government issues 5-year plans that set goals for local governments, and promotions for government cadres rest on how well they meet those goals. The current 5-year plan contains two major dictums that require improvements in energy efficiency and decreases in energy use and major pollutants. “That includes even restaurant noise,” Guttman says. But there’s “no capability to enforce” these rules on the ground.
In contrast with the U.S. and Europe, the MEP regional offices are not staffed by central government employees; the positions are paid for by local governments, which turn these environmental protection officers into professional workers with no power. “There is no legal basis for regional offices—only a piece of paper that says we can have them,” Guttman says.
Until very recently, everything was kept under the tight control of the Communist Party, which continues to fund and own many state-run industries, adds Guttman. “If you want to think about getting rid of pollution, [that would require] making the government clean itself up.”
In fact, says Leonard Ortolano, a specialist in water resources and environmental planning at Stanford University, China’s reward system at the local level is designed to keep the gross domestic product (GDP) growing. Any government mandates to curb environmental pollution are secondary.
“If you are a municipal-level EPB [Environmental Protection Board] head, your second boss is the mayor,” Ortolano explains, in addition to reporting to a higher-up provincial level. “The mayor controls your budget, staff size, and whether you keep your job. The mayor is under tremendous pressure to keep up economic growth.” Now, the central government is “trying to rejigger things so the mayor pays enough attention to the environment, as they do to GDP growth. If it happens, it will change things radically.”
China’s leaders are practical in the sense that they are willing to look at other countries’ environmental efforts and to adopt solutions that work. For example, the Chinese government has implemented the EU’s ratings system for automobile emissions and EPA’s green-building guidelines. Using some of those guidelines, the city of Beijing has brought 50% of its new buildings up to code with basic environmental improvements such as adding insulation, according to Deborah Seligsohn, director of the World Resources Institute (WRI) China Program and head of its Climate Energy and Pollution Program. “Fifty percent would be a major advance from where they were. . . . It’s definitely a glass half full,” she says.
In addition, a partnership between EPA and MEP has led to solutions as simple as training building managers to use their heating, ventilating, and air conditioning systems more efficiently—to show people that efficiency can save money as well as energy. And, as part of an effort to increase energy efficiency, the government has devoted 900 million yuan (nearly $130 million) to upgrading household heating meters.
WRI and the China Business Council for Sustainable Development, a corporate cooperative group under the Chinese Enterprise Confederation, which works through the central government’s National Development and Reform Commission, have also partnered with companies in China to build inventories of greenhouse gas emissions to help track their emissions, among other projects. “Basically, 70% of [CO2] emissions are in the industrial sector,” says Seligsohn. “China can choose to focus on industrial emissions now, and then put in place some policies and measures in the building and transportation sectors that would control CO2 emissions growth [later] as technology and these sectors continue to develop.” New technologies could lower the cost of solutions for a variety of sectors, including green buildings, mass transportation, and alternative energy vehicles.
One relatively simple technology jump has been the widespread adoption of low-mercury, compact fluorescent bulbs across the country. Energy for lighting generates 14% of China’s emissions, Seligsohn points out, and the government’s Green Lighting Program brings compact fluorescent lights, which are produced in China for Wal-Mart and other major companies, to the local market.
Breathing wind, building well
In addition to China’s ambitious carbon plan, Seligsohn points out that the central government’s current 5-year plan for 2006 to 2010 aims to reduce energy intensity by 20%. The desired mix of renewable energy to reach that goal includes solar, geothermal, biomass, hydroelectricity, nuclear, and wind power. And the country has the added advantage of being the producer of leading cuttingedge designs for wind turbines and other equipment, from Europe, the U.S., and Japan, while working to improve its own technologies at such institutions as Tsinghua University, China’s equivalent of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
A 2007 report from the Global Wind Energy Council reported that 40 Chinese companies produced more than half of the new infrastructure
capacity for wind turbines for the global market last year. China currently has 6 gigawatts (GW) of wind power capacity installed, and by the end of the year, one largescale wind farm in Zhejiang Province is expected to have installed another 49.5 megawatts. By 2010, the Global Wind Energy Council estimates that China’s capacity will hit 10–12 GW of wind power. The city of Shanghai demands about 0.3 GW of capacity a year for its population of more than 20 million people.
China’s own estimates predict that by 2020 building and construction will require 40% of the country’s annual energy production. More building will lead to increased water use, wood and steel consumption, air conditioning use, and more. To counter some of this unwanted growth, China’s Ministry of Housing and Urban–Rural Construction established a greenbuilding rating system, with rules on land use, energy, water, and construction materials.
“The Chinese conceptually have many ideas in which they are leaders,” says Ortolano. “And they embrace the planning that allows them to do these things. . . . It is a culture of planning that is quite different,” especially from the U.S.
Ortolano mentions brand-new sustainable villages and industrial parks that are planned or being built now (past reports show that some “eco-villages” have had mixed success). Designers have set up industrial parks with closed-loop recycling, where companies transfer their waste to other companies that then use it as input. This reengineering includes a zero-energy island city (PDF 640KB) of 80,000 residents, offshore of Shanghai. And in a bid for grand-scale renewable energy, solar panels and wind turbines are sprouting up near the Gobi Desert, along the Silk Road. “You are driving, and then suddenly there’s row after row of huge wind turbines,” says Guttman. “You turn around, and you see entirely new, what we would call cities, overnight.”
Revolution of rising expectations
Despite the challenges, Ortolano and others can see that, gradually, China is managing to succeed—by putting in place its tremendous industrial renovation programs, starting up monitoring for emissions, and encouraging green building and sustainable resource use, all while protecting its culture and its people. “Slowly, slowly, they’re doing it,” Ortolano says. “All I could say is one has to stay tuned. Things are in flux and changing rapidly. We can expect increasing pressures from central to local governments to pay attention to the environment.”
Chinese aspirations are the same as any developed country’s, says Seligsohn: people want blue sky, natural settings, pristine buildings. Even if all of China’s people are not wealthy themselves, they know their country is, she says. “A fundamental change that’s happened in the last 10 years [is that they have become] wealthy enough as a society to say, ‘We are going to be among the first rank.’ Development is more than just industry; modernity means quality health care, education, clean water—[and] environmental as well as other social services.”
“It’s not going to be perfect,” Seligsohn says, “but I am quite convinced that 5 years from now, you’ll look at the sky [in Beijing], and it’s going to be substantially better.”