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Why Chinese cities are different

Chongqing, China, one of eight low-carbon pilot cities Chongqing, China, one of eight low-carbon pilot cities Sean Pavone
08 Dec
Urban design and sustainable infrastructure will play a huge role in building a low-carbon global economy. But cities in one key player – China – have some significant differences to the rest of the world

Since becoming the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter in 2007, China now contributes nearly 20 per cent of global emissions. While 58 per cent of China’s energy-related CO2 emissions are currently derived from cities, in the coming decades this figure is likely to climb closer to the 70 per cent global average, according to a report, issued by the China Energy Group of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Stockholm Environment Institute with the support of Bloomberg Philanthropies. Therefore, as Lynn Price, Senior Staff Scientist and Group Leader at China Energy Group, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory puts it: ‘The importance of cities in China cannot be understated’.

‘All of the different organisations that are helping cities in Europe and the US to mitigate their emissions,’ explains Price, ‘typically focus on the other areas that are important in cities; buildings, urban design, traffic.’ However, Chinese cities, she claims, ‘need a little bit of specialised expertise’.

Of China’s urban greenhouse emissions, 17 per cent are as a result of urban transport, while 27 per cent are from residential and commercial buildings. Unlike most cities, the majority of Chinese urban emissions – 56 per cent – are due to urban industry, specifically, manufacturing.

China urban emissionsChina Urban CO2 Emissions by Sector, 2015 (Image: Stockholm Environment Institute)

‘Chinese cities are very different to other cities around the world,’ says Price. ‘Chinese cities have a significant amount of manufacturing within their boundaries, and they’re very industrial cities still. So when we think about taking climate action with Chinese cities, we have to be cognisant of where the energy use is, where it’s growing, and the key areas where mitigation actions can be taken.’

China’s contribution to the UN with regards to cutting global emissions was announced back in November 2014, when Chinese President Xi Jinping stood alongside US President Barack Obama and pledged to peak CO2 emissions by 2030. As Price explains, this CO2 peak is largely dependent on these manufacturing cities hitting ‘peak coal’, something which may have happened this year, but if not, is widely forecast to occur prior to 2020. ‘A lot of the studies say that the CO2 peak will come about ten years after the coal peak,’ she adds. ‘So we’re all watching the coal peak for that reason.’

This process of gradually easing China’s manufacturing economy away from coal is why Chinese cities are being required to think differently from the rest of the world in regards to how they bring down their greenhouse emissions in line with Xi Jinping’s pledge.

The first step to accomplish this was in 2010, when China’s National Development Reform Commission (NDRC) initiated eight low-carbon pilot cities and five low-carbon pilot provinces. ‘Under this programme,’ explains Price, ‘these pilot areas do an inventory, prepare climate action plans and develop local implementation guidelines. That programme expanded in 2012 and added 28 more cities – so now there are 36 cities underneath this pilot programme.’

The kind of steps being undertaken by cities in the programme include promoting high-quality construction to improve industrial energy efficiency and reduce energy demand, optimising freight transport of goods, promoting the adoption of clean appliances and equipment, improving urban design to reduce private transport demand, and, of course, decarbonising the local energy supply, and reducing the high consumption of coal.

‘There’s also a carbon-trading pilot programme in China, which covers a number of cities and provinces,’ adds Price. ‘It was recently announced it will be expanding to a national carbon trading programme in 2017’ – part of China's thirteenth five-year plan.

While there has been a recent discovery that China has historically been burning as much as 17 per cent more coal each year than recorded (‘A lot of small coal mines supporting small industrial facilities, so small they weren’t getting caught at the national survey level,’ explains Price), the implication is that the world’s second largest economy is finally getting a handle on its coal consumption and resulting emissions, even if it means that various skeletons are falling out of the closet in the process. Chinese cities will be leading this transition, and, with an estimated 305 million people expected to move from rural to urban regions in China over the next 35 years, it’s happening not a moment too soon.

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