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From sham to reality

China’s existing “low-carbon cities” are mostly fakes, energy researcher Jiang Kejun tells Liu Jianqiang. For the sake of future economic strength, the government must give meaning to this slogan.

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Jiang Kejun, senior researcher at the National Development and Reform Commission’s Energy Research Institute, was one of the first Chinese academics to study the concept of low-carbon cities. With his colleagues, he is currently producing a low-carbon programme for Shenyang in north-east China. During the recent climate-change talks in Tianjin, Liu Jianqiang spoke to Jiang about low-carbon cities.

Liu Jianqiang: “Low-carbon city” seems to have become a buzz word, with many places in China adopting this label. Are these cities really low-carbon?

Jiang Kejun: These so-called “low-carbon cities” are actually high-carbon. Per-capita emissions in Chinese cities are two or more times those of western cities. What’s low-carbon about that?

LJ: Why are per-capita emissions so high in Chinese cities?

JK: Because, in developed nations, cities are used primarily for living – emissions come mainly from transportation and buildings. But Chinese cities are home to a lot of industry, and the associated emissions are high. There isn’t actually much residential energy consumption.

China’s strategic promotion of low-carbon cities is a good move, but many cities have gone about it the wrong way. They have all piled in to become “low-carbon cities” and it’s been disastrous.

For example, the conference centre we’re in now looks modern and luxurious – that’s why the [UN-led climate-change] talks are here. But if any of the attendees want to cross the road outside, then they’re in trouble: it’s too wide, it’s a waste of land. This is what Chinese people think modern is, but actually it’s a rural view of modernisation.

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.

But Beijing’s city leaders still say that having more cars is a sign of modernity. Beijing once demolished its city walls. Now it’s knocking down the 798 art district [an artist community in decommissioned factory buildings in Beijing’s Chaoyang district]. It is making the same mistake all over again. But this approach represents the way of thinking of most Chinese people.

LJ: What about Beijing’s neighbouring city, Langfang? The environmental authorities once took the media there to do a report on low-carbon cities.

JK: That isn’t genuine either. Langfang wants to be named a “model low-carbon city”, but how is it going about it? It’s just trying to look beautiful and modern. It’s only got a population of 300,000, but several of its roads are as big as Chang’an Avenue [a major route through Beijing]. City greenery includes areas of grass that were actually carbon-intensive to create.

We’ve been telling our colleagues at the Ministry of Environmental Protection to change the standards for model cities to reflect actual low-carbon practices, otherwise it gives the impression that everyone is environmentally-friendly, despite still being high-carbon.

We can’t blame Langfang or any other city – they were working to the ministry’s standards. But now that “low-carbon” is the thing, the ministry is calling “environmentally-friendly” cities “low-carbon” instead. Langfang is a small city, you can normally bike from home to work in ten minutes, and drive in three or four – but car usage is higher than in Beijing. Why? Because parking is free and the roads are wide.

The most frightening thing is that, in the future, half of China’s urban population will be in cities like this. If they all copy Beijing, our low-carbon cities are done for.

LJ: When everyone is trying to create low-carbon cities, why are they instead turning out to be high-carbon?

JK: Because nobody knows what a low-carbon city actually looks like, so most are just using their imagination. A lot of researchers don’t even understand the idea.

LJ: Is it really the case that China doesn’t have a single low-carbon city?

JK: No, it does have one – Shenyang [in Liaoning province] is planning to become a complete low-carbon city. My colleagues and I are helping in the design, from overall industrial makeup to buildings, transport, land use and lifestyles. The first aim is to have a good ratio of pavements and bike lanes to roads, with the best parking spots given to buses and bikes.

There is also a targeted rate of use of public transport and mandated percentage of dedicated bus lanes and bus speeds. Building a subway is just a matter of freeing up local-government finance, it’s not very hard. There’s also going to be an environmentally-friendly taxi fleet – Shenyang has an automobile manufacturing industry, so it can do that. It is also adopting higher energy-efficiency standards. For example, vehicles sold in Shenyang need to be more energy-saving than those sold elsewhere in China. And buildings need to meet energy-saving rates of 75%, the highest standard nationally.

LJ: Does the government have sufficient funds for low-carbon projects like this?

JK: We’ve worked out the costs for Shenyang – what the government will have to pay for and what others will cover. For example, property developers will cover the costs of meeting the 75% energy-saving standard, while other expenses such as transportation development can be met by the state. Government income is more than 50 billion yuan (US$7.5 billion) a year, so it can afford to use more than one billion of that on low-carbon cities.  

LJ: Why is Shenyang so active in this field? What’s the motive?

JK: Two members of the Central Political Bureau’s Standing Committee used to work in Liaoning, and they want to see Shenyang as a successful trial. One of those leaders once visited Japan, where he was very impressed by their low-carbon cities, so he requested that Shenyang become a low-carbon city.

LJ: And besides requests from superiors, is there any other motive? Many officials are at least saying they want to build low-carbon cities.

JK: Local officials compete on GDP growth – if your economy grows 12%, I need to reach 13% and beat you. That’s the thinking and they wear each other ragged. But China’s GDP has been growing rapidly for three decades and there’s not that much growth potential left. For example, where will Beijing’s economic growth come from once Shougang Corporation [one of China’s largest steel companies] has relocated? If you can’t compete, change the game – come up with new standards, like “livable cities” or “low-carbon cities”. And these local officials are smart. They want to keep up with global trends and central-government targets.

LJ: Will cities that take low-carbon choices, such as limiting energy-intensive industries, lose economic competitiveness?

JK: For cities such as Shenyang, it will actually increase competitiveness and make them money. Shenyang is a manufacturing hub and its precision machinery for example is – at the demand of central government – extremely energy efficient and very competitive. The world’s 28 key low-carbon technologies, once they go into production, will need to be manufactured. And Shenyang has a strong advantage here.

But cities like Shenyang don’t just want to be low-carbon themselves, they also want to help the nation – even the world – to become low-carbon, because only then will the nation and the world need their energy-saving technology.

This should also be one of China’s strategic aims. Currently China is being pushed to reduce emissions, but in the near future it should be China pushing the world, because we’ve got advanced low-carbon technology and we’ll want our standards to be used globally. In the future, economic competiveness will belong to those with the key technologies.

Our research team tracks several hundred technologies relevant to low-carbon development, and we have found that many of the most advanced ones are in China. If other nations don’t develop their low-carbon economies, they will have no choice but to buy these products from China. For example, all of Indonesia’s [clean] coal technology is imported from China – it’s half the cost of the US equivalent, and the impact on India is huge. A Malaysian once told me that his country would need to come to China to buy electric vehicles.

The pattern of the future will be technological competition between industries and nations. It’s time for the negotiation game to end.

Liu Jianqiang is the Beijing-based deputy editor of chinadialogue.
Homepage image from Stuck in Customs

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Non-stop building

Studies have said that the average life expectancy of a house in China is just 30 years, which means that basically all the houses from the beginning of the Reform and Opening up have been demolished. Demolished and built, built and demolished, even if the materials used were environmentally friendly, how low-carbon can it be?

Even more ridiculous is recently at the Asian Games, the Guangzhou government encouraged residents to turn on all the lights at home so that the opening ceremony would look better when filmed.

Many cities in China like to do lighting projects, in other words "face-saving" projects, such as pasting a layer of paper on the painted windows of old houses, which results in more face being lost.

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“广州政府最近办亚运更可笑,居然为了让开幕式拍的好看,鼓励市民把家里的灯都打开。”:更可笑,或者更可悲的是,即便没有政府的鼓励,一些发达国家(包括美国和日本)民众“自愿”把自己的灯打开,以便让google地图上自己的家的夜色看起来更美好,体现自己了不起的“living standard”。Google上这样的卫星照片很多呢!

"Crows under the sky" and "face-saving projects"

"Even more ridiculous is recently at the Asian Games, the Guangzhou government encouraged residents to turn on all the lights at home so that the opening ceremony would look better when filmed.": What is funny or sad, is that even without the government's encouragement, the people of some developed countries (including the United States and Japan) "willingly" turn on their lights so that their house looks more beautiful in the night scene on Google maps and reflect on their great "living standard". There are so many satellite pictures on Google like this!

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We know what we know

The sad thing is that we don't even know what we don't know, can we still say "that is knowledge"? Behind strong nationalism, is ignorance.
Where in the world are these so-called low carbon cities, depends on how you define low carbon city. And this definition is still obscure. For losing weight, there are formulas to compare your height and weight, but no "formulas" for getting low carbon. It goes to show the high level of ignorance in this world.
Where are the low carbon societies? In rural areas, they don't even want bicycles, let alone bicycle lanes because they walk. They plant their own crops. It takes ten minutes to go to work and they can even take a nap at noon. It is dark by 8pm so they go to bed at 8:30 and wake up at 6am (they can't sleep). They live comfortably, working at sunrise and resting at sunset, which is also low carbon. Another name for this is China's low carbon. Is it sad?

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Wishfull thinking?

Interesting article, just do not understand the U-Turn at the bottom. Suddenly (in the near future) China has all the low-carbon technology to push back the rest of the world? Yes, a nice dream to have this as part of the strategy, and how is this going to be delivered?

So far it maybe is only Shenyang that is making a genuine low-carbon attempt?

I know China still has to build a lot of new buildings. However the stuff that has been build over the past 10 years, and comprises already a very large part of the buildings to be used in the 50 years to come, are of such low standard that they are total carbon / energy wasters. How can you reduce emissions?

+ Most construction is of low quality: e.g. insulation is really bad and energy wasted due to heat / cold loss are tremendous

+ Most design is in such a way it is a total energy waste on airconditioning. Look at the floor to ceiling glass buildings facing south without even the slightest bit of tinted glass or other way to keep out the heat from sunlight?

Will not start on the transportation issues, I think most people suffer enough from this on a daily basis...

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Copy Curitiba, why not?

The success at Curitiba, capital city of Parana, Brazil offers us and the world the opportunity what good intention, good design that is centered around people will work in a perfect way towards low carbon. Curitiba first pioneered the concept of Bus Rapid Transit, and it is the second thing only to football maybe, a huge success yet so few people knows its existence. We turned to the West so often for a solution that does not exist at all, but we should really turn to the humble small city, a population of about 2 million.It is located in a standard developing country ( although grows very fast recently afetr decades of mess before 00s), and it is not that rich which will be good enough to inspire other bold cities like Shenyang. So why don't copy Curitiba, is a question I leave to dear readers.



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As long as it works in the right direction...

"Low-carbon city" may be useful as a political slogan that motivates people to improve their city's waste of energy and atmospheric pollution. Of course, it cannot provide absolute standards, if only because the definition of a "city" (by administrative control or by population density?) may differ between countries. In China some municipalities may have large rural areas, while others have not, and their industrial basis may differ greatly. The main thing is that each city (both its administration and its people) should be motivated to take measures that reduce future carbon use, such as emphasizing public transport and bicycles, energy-efficient buildings, smart meters and industrial consolidation. Every few years, one should adjust the yardsticks of performance in order to avoid misallocation resulting from chasing targets.

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Refreshing candor

Appreciate Jiang Kejun's candor about use of "low-carbon city."

In case of Shenyang, any suggestions for specific Shenyang projects to see? Or specific goals, for example reductions we should see in old-fashion air pollution?

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Interesting response

Liu's question "Why is Shenyang so active in this field? What’s the motive?"
Jiang Kejun's response is very logical --
The universal reason is official conciousness!
When the concept of a "low-carbon city" can be interpreted by experts and officials to be a concept that benefits the people, only then will it mobilise the masses to join in. Otherwise it's all just talk.