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Balancing Growth, Sustainability

Take a tour of China’s fast-growing megacities and you’re likely to come away astonished. Those of us who joined Gov. Edmund G. Brown, Jr.’s historic trade and investment delegation last week were struck by the sheer size and rapid scale of development in dozens of cities, from Beijing and Shanghai to Huangzhou and Guangzhou. But a closer look, past the infamous veil of air pollution, reveals a lesser-known reality with incredible potential: China’s vast efforts to build sustainable, low-carbon cities from the ground up and to massively retrofit existing ones.

In every city I visited, Chinese local government leaders expressed their hunger for solutions on air quality, greenhouse gas reduction, and renewable energy.

They have the swagger of Silicon Valley venture capitalists—willing to experiment and gamble on bold ideas, and to make mistakes and learn from them. In particular, they want to learn from US cities, who are far ahead on climate action, but they also want to share their own groundbreaking approaches to sustainability.

The take-home is the same for cleantech investors and city leaders in the United States: China’s burgeoning urban landscape represents an unprecedented opportunity for trade, information sharing, and the proliferation of clean energy and energy-efficiency investments.

trees and climate change solution

Over the past 10 days, Gov. Brown’s trade mission has generated national headlines with new trade and investment partnerships, and agreements for California and Guangdong Province—both the economic powerhouses in their respective countries—to share tools and strategies to address climate change and accelerate low-carbon economic growth. California will also share the technologies and policy approaches it has used to slash the type of noxious air pollution that used to plague Los Angeles.

At the city level, Chinese officials are ready to partner with US cities and with my organization, ICLEI, to obtain the necessary technical resources to reduce carbon intensity and meet their long-term goals. Right now many Chinese cities lack the type of national protocols and step-by-step guidance that US cities and counties have relied on to measure their GHG emissions, set reduction targets, and develop climate action plans.

China’s environmental challenges remain enormous: awful air quality, reliance on coal, an unrelenting increase in energy consumption and growing greenhouse gas emissions due to economic expansion.

Yet Chinese city leaders aren’t sitting on their hands. Nearly every major policy or technological approach to sustainability happening across U.S. cities and communities is also underway in China—but on a much larger scale that is hard to comprehend if you can’t see it firsthand.

By connecting with Chinese officials, US city leaders could learn much from the experimentation and breakneck pace of sustainable development in China. What were the lessons learned, the mistakes, the breakthroughs? A few examples of what we saw last week:

Electric Vehicles

China’s “Ten Cities Thousand Vehicles” program, launched in 10 cities in January 2009 and expanded to 25 in 2011, aims to put thousands of EVs on the road in these pilot cities. The program is a sort of competition with different approaches deployed by different cities, who continually refine their efforts.

In Hangzhou, we saw a flexible rental model where users could rent either an EV or separately, the car battery, which could be swapped at special stations. In Shanghai there is also a business innovation model focused on EV rentals; in Beijing, a government-led approach with tax incentives. The most successful of these and other models will be showcased in Chinese media and shared with other cities to adopt.

Hangzhou Future Tech City

In only five years, planners are building from scratch a city the size of San Francisco for 500,000 people, and incorporating the best practices in urban design from around the world. The buildings feature cutting-edge energy efficiency and sustainable design; green space and wetlands are preserved and protected throughout the city, and a city center boasts smooth transit and electric vehicles. A special business incubator zone has attracted more than 131 domestic and overseas high-tech firms, and similar economic zones are springing up across other Chinese cities.

City Cap-and-Trade

Five Chinese cities, as well as two provinces, will pilot cap-and-trade programs for large polluters. The first two cities this year will be Shanghai and Shenzhen. Reportedly, another 100 cities and regions are interested in carbon trading as well. To meet their reduction targets, cities and provinces are focused heavily on renewable energy expansion—a great opportunity for US cleantech businesses to support. Chinese cities have also connected with officials in Tokyo, which also has a cap-and-trade program. Collaboration with California is sure to be next.

As we watch China’s city expansion unfold, again, the scale is hard to grasp: Over the next 20 years, an estimated 350 million Chinese will resettle in urban areas, the greatest human migration in history. As China races to accommodate this change, there are invaluable lessons to be learned from their successes and failures. It is imperative that Chinese city leaders and their counterparts around the world connect to share what’s working or failing.

As Chinese cities move toward a more sustainable future, we need to see their opportunities as the United States’ opportunities. Last week during a meeting with Governor Brown’s delegation, Yau Qiang, the chair of Tsinghua University’s Laboratory of Low-Carbon Energy perhaps said it best: “The future cleantech economy is still a cake to make, not a cake to cut. Why not make it big enough for all to share?”

Article by Michael Schmitz, Executive Director of ICLEI–Local Governments for Sustainability USA (ICLEI USA). ICLEI is the world’s leading association of cities and local governments dedicated to sustainability, with more than 1,000 local government members in 84 countries. In the United States, ICLEI USA is the recognized leader on climate action and clean energy.

Greener Cities and climate action

Greener Cities is a division of Crossbow Communications. Greener Cities is a resource for sustainable and resilient cities and communities around the world.

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Author: Gary Chandler

Gary Chandler is a sustainability strategist, author and advocate. Follow him on Twitter @Gary_Chandler