A sustainable Chinese city? There’s no such thing


Mark L. Clifford weighs in on China’s leadership in green building and energy efficiency

Shanghai. Image: Patrick Foto/Shutterstock
Shanghai. Image: Patrick Foto/Shutterstock

Last month, Shenzhen beat 80 cities in China and Europe to claim the top prize at The Euro-China Green & Smart City Awards. It’s another proverbial feather on the cap for China, a country touted in recent months as an unlikely frontrunner in the effort to mitigate climate change.

Viewing any one Chinese city as an out-and-out exemplar in sustainability may miss the point, however. “I don’t think that any city in China can be called green or sustainable,” said Asia Business Council executive director Mark Clifford, the keynote speaker at last year’s Property Report Congress in China. Although the Chinese government has heavily invested in building codes since the 1980s, they remain “fairly lax” and allow buildings in the country to use 80 percent more energy than their US counterparts.

Mark Clifford speaking at Property Report Congress 2015
Mark Clifford speaking at Property Report Congress 2015

If current trends were to hold, energy use by the Chinese building sector is on track to double by 2050, Clifford warned.

The onus is particularly heavy on China, rated as the largest contributing country to emissions from fossil fuel and cement production, according to a 2012 Belfer Center study. China’s building sector is expected to use more energy than any comparable sector in other countries by 2030.

That said, China has shown a propensity for atoning for its massive carbon footprint, if not missteps against the planet. “Recent studies have shown that China could keep building energy use roughly flat through 2050 if it invests in high-efficiency technologies and best practices,” said Clifford, lauding Beijing and Tianjin’s adoption of building standards that are as much as 15 percent more stringent than national standards. “That’s good news.”

More: Singapore ranks second in the world for green buildings

China’s gumption to reverse global warming can be attributed to equal parts self-preservation and political maneuvering. The pall of air pollution hangs heavily on dozens of cities in the mainland, particularly in the capital Beijing.

“Chinese leaders want to improve the quality of life in their nation’s cities by reducing air pollution; win large shares of promising export markets for green technologies; and increase China’s ‘soft power’ in international relations,” said Matthew E. Kahn, professor of economics and spatial statistics at the University of Southern California. “Taking aggressive action to cut carbon emissions helps China in all three areas.”

Smog in Beijing. Image: designbydx/Shutterstock
Smog in Beijing. Image: designbydx/Shutterstock

Moneyed citizens are not unheard of to emigrate from China literally in search of breathing space — a need that real estate firms should take into account. “Every developer in Beijing or in Shanghai is competing more or less on an equal footing in the same smoggy environment throughout the city,” Clifford said. “The question is how this will play out in the future. Will we really see domestic demand fall because more middle-class families move abroad? We have seen significant numbers of Chinese families moving abroad in part because of pollution – the impact on Vancouver is an obvious example.”

In the end, it is difficult to dismiss the strides China has made in the pursuit of green building. In a ranking released by USGBC last year, China emerged as the number one country in terms of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). Boasting 34.62 million gross square meters of certified LEED space, China bested such countries as Canada, India, Brazil, and South Korea in sustainable building design and construction.

With big shifts on the global stage imminent, and the US preparing to renege on its own gains in the fight against climate change, China is a green revelation.

Read next: Could green building finally be taking off in China?