Can a “Green China” Save our Planet?

“Our civilization is to be either lost or redeemed in China, the awakening giant.”
– Richard Register, Environmental scholar.

Solar Panels

In the last 30 years, China has undergone not only rapid economic growth, but also rapid urbanisation with nearly 50% of the population now living in urban areas. This figure is predicted to be around 70% in 2035. In addition to a rapid urbanisation rate, China still has an increasing population and with this comes a greater demand for energy consumption. For every 1% increase in population in China, there is a 2.2% increase in energy consumption due to China’s urbanisation and modernisation. This is clearly a worry, not only for environmental policy makers in China, but around the world. This worry is compounded by the reality that China will keep on growing and already has the world’s largest carbon footprint; 7,031,916,000 metric tonnes, which is 23.33% of the world’s carbon footprint. The USA is next with 18.11% and then most other countries are nowhere near, (India is 3rd with 5%).

China’s economic growth and demographic shift has had, and will have, profound environmental implications. The rising urban population has meant a rapid depletion of natural resources, poorer air quality and an increase in pollution levels; locally and globally. Despite this, if one compares China with the US there arises interesting facts. In China’s most polluted city, Daqing, the per-household emissions are only a fifth of those in the ‘greenest’ city in the US, San Diego. This, however, is surely an indicator of the level of development within China. In the US, about 40% of emissions come from residential and personal transportation which is much higher than in China. However, as China continues to grow, so will the residential sector’s share of the emissions as China moves from a manufacturing economy to a service one. The demand for private transport will only increase as China’s increasingly urban population becomes richer. It is estimated that China uses three times as much energy per unit of GDP as the US and nine times as much as Japan – A rather shocking fact from the country with the largest population and second largest economy.

The question is a very tough one for the government in Beijing. The most recent five-year plan has a “green GDP” at its heart, the first time any large economy has openly placed sustainable development at the head of its agenda. China is making decisions currently over investments in infrastructure, transport and energy that will have long term implications on the ability of future generations to consume resources and produce greenhouse gases. With this in mind, the world is looking to China to lead the way in pursuing sustainable development and Green technology. Due to China’s sheer size and inconsistent population spread, regional development programs are the key to success, in terms of government intervention, in reducing China’s global carbon footprint. The high levels of pollution are centered mainly in the north and in the coastal regions, i.e. in the more developed parts of China. Unlike in the US; China’s government is pursuing a well defined and structured set of regional growth policies.

“There are at least three significant programmes that are intended to bolster the growth of particular regions.”

  • The Western Development Programme launched in 1999 gives infrastructure aid and support for industrial adjustment to western and inland provinces.
  • The Northeast Revitalisation Programme focuses on reinventing the declined cities in the Northeast (Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang).
  • A third programme is targeted at the development of Beijing-Tianjin- Bohai Sea region. This programme intends to expedite the development of this northern mega-region to catch up the Yangtze and Pearl River Deltas in the south

(Matthew E Kahn and Siqi Zheng – Jan 2010)

There are other regional projects which are going on such as in Rizhao in Shangdong prvince where solar energy is generated on around 95% of the buildings. Outside Honolulu, no city in the U.S. breaks single digits or even comes close. However, the general consensus is that it will take much more than projects on this scale. A new, and seemingly credible, solution which is gaining tremendous momentum in China is the Eco-city. The Eco-city can be seen as a long-term solution to the increasing level of damage to the environment by countries like China. The primary goal of an eco-city is to create a ‘purpose built green area’ which will minimise carbon footprints by mainly using renewable energy sources. These sources can be in various forms such as solar panels, hydro-power and the use of bio-gas. The Eco-city is also designed to efficiently make use of land and reduce urban sprawl. In this way people will live closer to work and thus will have much less of a commute as business, industrial and residential areas are integrated. This will, however, require a radical new approach to town and city planning.

An Eco-city project that has already been started is the 30 square kilometre Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city development. “The Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city seeks to address the challenge of sustainable development in a holistic and balanced manner. This aim is underpinned by the concept of man living in harmony with his fellow man, the economy and with the environment” ( The Eco-city site is located 40 km from Tianjin city centre and 150 km from Beijing and will eventually be residence to 350,000 people; the first inhabitants are expected to move there in 2012. This project shows how china is leading the way in green technology and, if successful will act as a blueprint for other Eco-cities in China and the world.

For all that the Eco-City projects appear like a good idea, they require significant initial investment before they even become a possibility. This means that other long-term strategies are required if China are to help achieve sustainable development and cut their carbon emissions. While many Chinese pundits and scholars are applauding China’s Twelfth Five-Year Plan as a milestone for China’s green revolution, the country’s march to low energy consumption and low carbon economy is not going to be a smooth or straight one.

China’s five-year plans, albeit strategically sound, are not likely to change the short- and medium-term energy and climate landscapes. In the foreseeable future, much more oil will not only need to be used by Chinese manufacturers and agriculture but also by the phenomenal expansions in passenger vehicles. Increasing world oil prices will also add to already elevated inflation in China. If China could limit its economic growth rate to 7 per cent over the next five years, then energy consumption and carbon emissions could be significantly controlled.

There are also other issues. China has been historically poor at collecting and effectively recording data about carbon emissions, which is something that will need to be improved upon. China also relies heavily on nuclear power for its non-fossils energy strategy developments and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future, something that may prove to be risky considering the recent catastrophe in Fukushima, making it not particularly popular.

China’s best option, for now, would appear to lie in looking to international organisations and foreign governments to help it firstly improve its data collection methods and secondly obtain greater skills and knowledge for turning its 5-year plans in to more long term solutions.

“We once thought of China as the ‘yellow peril’ and then the ‘red menace.’ Now the colours are black and green”
National Geographic Magazine – Can China go green?)

  • Neil Rylander- CPG Marketing Intern

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