Building an ecological civilisation

By Mark Watts, Executive Director of C40 Cities

I was in Beijing last week to launch C40’s China Climate Action Plan programme, as well as to celebrate progress on C40’s China Buildings Programme. It was a great opportunity to understand that just as China has in recent years become the electric vehicle, renewable energy, and cycle-hire capital of the world, so its cities may be poised to leapfrog everywhere else in green building standards too.

It’s all part of President Xi’s drive towards an "ecological civilisation”, one which puts more emphasis on the quality of economic growth than its quantity. Indeed, at its recent annual People’s Congress, three priorities were established: pollution control, eliminating poverty (by the end of next year) and prevention of financial risks.

This approach has been developed partly as a consequence of significant environmental pollution caused as a by-product of China’s extraordinary economic growth in recent decades. Even now, as western journals make much of the fact that China’s GDP growth rate has fallen from highs of over 10% to 6.5%, that still means China’s economy is expected to expand more than twice as fast as the USA this year, and three times more than the European Union. However, it also brought with it significant environmental problems including air pollution (7 of the 10 most polluted cities in the world were in China only a few years ago), dead rivers, and soil erosion.

It would be wrong to say that that trend has been entirely reversed, but as a periodic visitor to China it is impossible not to notice the huge changes in Beijing. First, the skies were blue for the entire duration of my multi-day visit, something I have never previously experienced. Instead of smog, the air was just about breathable - indeed Beijing has risen from being the most polluted city in the world, to outside the top 100. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) recently published a report on this which shows that in the five years from 2013 to 2017, fine particulate pollution (PM2.5) in Beijing fell by 35% and by 25% in surrounding regions. Other pollutants, like sulphur dioxide, particulate matter (PM10) and volatile organic compounds in Beijing decreased by 83%, 22% and 42% respectively.

That’s due to a shift away from coal-fired power generation, moving polluting industry out of the city, and a highly visible shift in transport policy. One of the highest quality and most extensive metro systems in the world has been built in a few years; the bus fleet is well on the way to becoming fully electric; scooters are everywhere but they are also battery powered; and huge numbers of cycle-hire bikes give young people, in particular, a cheap and fast way to get around.

That’s not all. Central Beijing is becoming a little like Singapore in that I simply didn’t spot any litter on the streets. Similarly, I don’t know how many trees have been planted, but there is plant life everywhere, making this a visibly green city now.

It is quite likely that Beijing’s in-boundary greenhouse gas emissions have also peaked and have either plateaued at around 5 tonnes per person per year, or are starting to come down. This is the view of local experts, although official data is not yet available. It puts Beijing in the same peak emissions club as nearly 30 mainly western C40 cities, and with a footprint that is a little less than European metropolises like London or Paris, or New York, and about half that of the larger, sprawling USA cities.

Yet there is still much progress to be made. C40’s global target for per person emissions is 3 tonnes by 2030, so Beijing needs to cut its footprint by about 40% in the next decade. A significant chunk (25% and rising) of these emissions come from energy consumed in buildings.

That shouldn’t be a surprise. As urban citizens, we spend as much as 90% of our time inside buildings. From historic landmarks to brand new skyscrapers and our own homes, it is the buildings of a city that shape our experience of life there. It is, therefore, not surprising that buildings, through the energy used to power, heat or cool them are also major contributors to the emissions responsible for climate change. In the rapidly growing cities of China, the decisions made today about how buildings are constructed, insulated and powered will have a huge impact on the emissions generated by those cities for decades to come.

Research produced by C40 and McKinsey in 2018 demonstrated that of the 12 most critical actions cities can take to reduce their emissions at a pace and scale fast enough to meet Paris Climate agreement conditions, half of these relate specifically to buildings. The building sector already accounts for approximately 20% of China’s total primary energy consumption and 25% of GHG emissions. In the next 20 years, Chinese cities are expected to add a further 280 million citizens, as China becomes 70% urbanised. To put that into perspective, since 2001 China has added 31.5 billion square metres of building floor area, equivalent to constructing New York fifty-three times over! It is no surprise that China has used more concrete in the last few years that the USA consumed in the entire 20th Century.

Just as Chinese cities have successfully transformed their bus fleets to embrace electric vehicles at a pace and scale that leaves other cities around the world looking on with amazement (there are 16,000 electric buses operating on the streets of Shenzhen, from where I write this blog, whereas the highest total outside of China is 200 in Santiago and London respectively), so they have the potential to demonstrate what can be achieved in the building sector.  In September 2018, Beijing, alongside three other Chinese cities (Fuzhou, Qingdao and Shanghai), joined a C40 programme that will end in commitments to rapidly reduce emissions from existing buildings, ensure new buildings reach ultra-low energy consumption levels, and promote the use of buildings as a source of low carbon energy.

At our event Mr Yu Binyang, the impressive Director General of CSTID, a think-tank inside the China Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development , explained how China’s policy is to “aggressively attack climate change, while improving the lives of its citizens”, building on the Chinese philosophical approach of aiming for harmony between human beings and nature.

In Beijing this is translated into action through local building standards that go significantly beyond national requirements. At present that means buildings have to be at least 75% more efficient than the base level of a 1980s-constructed building. But, with the support of the C40 program, the aim is to get that to 90% more efficient and beyond. New guidelines are set to be released this year and Beijing officials are intently studying international best practice in C40, such as building standards in Oslo, Copenhagen and Stockholm.

To test the boundaries of what can be delivered in China, Beijing aims to construct 300,000 m2 of ultra-low energy demonstration building projects by the end of 2020. A third of this target has already been achieved. The Beijing Cuicheng D23 multi-family residential building has already become the first to be certified by both the Passive House Institute and the German Energy Agency. 100 million RMB worth of subsidies are on offer as an incentive to developers, but will taper off as the market becomes mature.

All of this is very exciting and given the gusto with which Chinese cities have made progress in other areas in recent years, working with the C40 China Buildings Programme, I have no doubt that we are witnessing the beginning of a radical transformation in construction. If that hope becomes reality then it will be another significant step along the path towards an ecological civilisation.