Building China’s future?

Following Singapore’s example, Britain is trying to secure a role in China’s eco-cities market. But what does that mean for the green agenda? Olivia Boyd spoke to one of the figures behind the campaign.

China’s vice premier, Li Keqiang, spent much of his nine-day European tour in January buying wine and olive oil in Spain and signing multibillion-dollar agreements with Volkswagen and Mercedes Benz in Germany. But it was a visit to a sustainable-housing development in Britain’s unglamorous town of Watford that rounded off the trip of the man tipped to be China’s next prime minister.

This high-level show of interest in the United Kingdom’s green-building sector will have added to the delight of British politicians, already quivering with excitement about a new agreement that will see the country take a role in developing China’s “low-carbon pilots”, schemes launched last August to accelerate carbon-emission cuts in eight cities. Announcing the deal, Chris Huhne, the UK’s energy and climate change secretary said: “Making green growth a reality for both countries will be crucial for prosperity, the environment and for our energy security.”

He has more to look forward to: in April, Qiu Baoxing, China’s vice-minister for housing and urban-rural development – and the man who once declared that “the world is at war with energy, and China is our battlefront” – is expected in London for discussions with a body set up to get British construction firms involved in China’s drive to build a wave of green cities. The two sides (the Chinese party is the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, or MOHURD) signed a memorandum of understanding last year.

Alan Kell, an expert in “smart” building technologies with experience overseeing the construction of sustainable demonstration pavilions in Hong Kong, Beijing and Kunming, is co-chair of the body due to host Qiu, the UK-China Eco-Cities & Green Building Working Group. In an interview with chinadialogue, he argued that Britain’s big international players can help boost the credibility of China’s green construction drive.

“A lot of the activity in China is frankly smoke and mirrors,” said Kell. “They come up with high concepts but, having got something approved as ‘low-carbon’ or ‘eco-city’, what gets delivered often has little or no reflection of those aspirations – it’s bog-standard commercial delivery. So we’ve got to get involved in the specification and standards and delivery process to help the Chinese help themselves.”

There is a heavy dose of commercial self-interest here too. The group – whose membership at last count comprised 25 of the UK’s leading construction, design and property firms plus three universities – is the latest incarnation of a government and business-backed initiative to promote British green-construction expertise in China. This time, its sights are on the mega schemes: the country’s so-called “eco-cities”, typically large-scale satellite developments near existing urban centres, intended to function both as sustainable communities and showcases for cutting-edge design. The Economist has reported that, by 2009, there were around 40 such schemes on the go, though the lack of a clear “eco-city” definition makes it hard to find a reliable figure.

It’s easy to see the market’s appeal. According to a 2009 forecast from the McKinsey Global Institute, China will have 350 million extra urban residents by 2025, a date by which the country should have already passed its target of a 40% to 45% cut in emissions intensity. And Britain is not the only country piling in. Singapore has even managed to get its role in a development in northern China into the scheme’s name: the “Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city”, a four billion yuan (US$607 million) urban project planned around a core of conserved wetlands. But do the ambitions of politicians and businesses stuck in stagnant domestic markets sit comfortably with a credible green agenda? In other words, will China’s environment actually benefit from the international scramble for work?

Kell argued that hard-nosed commercialism is actually a powerful way of delivering tangible benefits on the ground, not least because the pressure of the bottom line means companies push for implementation over discussion and large-scale delivery over demonstration: “These are commercial companies we’re dealing with. They’re prepared to invest a certain amount in capacity building but, come the crunch, their interest is in commercial projects, not demonstration. And my fundamental premise is: unless we’re connecting with commercial delivery, all these discussions are futile.”

Recent history suggests that sustainable aspirations of international firms in China do not always produce sustainable results, however. Dongtan, the prototype eco-city designed by British engineering giant Arup for an area of delicate wetlands near Shanghai, is the most potent example. Plans for the zero-emissions transport, energy self-sufficient scheme, intended to be one third of the size of Manhattan by 2050, won plaudits internationally (in spite of its location on a fragile ecosystem). But it never got off the ground.

Huangbaiyu, the “model sustainable village” designed by US architect William McDonough, was also a dispiriting flop. Forty-two houses were built on the site in Liaoning province, north-east China, but fell so far short of the promised standards that an American anthropologist sponsored to monitor the village’s transformation, Shannon May, was moved to speak out against it: “I could no longer continue reading the glowing stories of the successful development of a model eco-town in Huangbaiyu without becoming angry or depressed,” she wrote on her blog.

Does it have to be like this? Not according to Kell. He said the main lesson from the Dongtan fiasco is that projects have to be selected carefully. “Yes, there were local financial and political problems, but the message we were given from Beijing was that they didn’t support the Dongtan project. It didn’t figure in the national programme. And the message we take away from that is this: we have to work at the national level and at the local level to be successful. So we are working at the national level, with MOHURD, to understand and influence their eco-city standards, and we’re working at regional and city level to actually identify real projects.”

He added that, for real sustainability, there has to be an emphasis on the “life-cycle” of projects – making sure a scheme is workable and green from beginning to end; from financing arrangements through to post-construction management: “One statement I picked up from the ministry [MOHURD] is that there’s an increasing need in China to create a facilities management industry, because they’re throwing up all of these new buildings and they’re not performing.”

He gave an example: “I spoke a couple of years ago at a brand new, state-of-the-art conference centre in China. It looked breathtaking but the temperature in the room was unbearable and halfway through, a man came in with a cardboard box and proceeded to smash a hole in the wall and insert a stand-alone air-conditioning unit, just behind the podium. This incident in some ways illustrated the challenge – you can throw these buildings up, but you need to run them properly too.”

Whether or not Kell’s team will get to make this point at a practical level is as yet unclear. The group is doing well on memoranda of understanding. But when it comes to actual projects on the ground, there is less progress, though Kell is hopeful that a trade mission to China in March will yield a deal on specific projects in Hunan’s Changsha-Zhuzhou-Xiangtan City cluster (CZT), which as well as promoting green industry aims to be a national exemplar in protecting intellectual property rights.

And whether or not such projects, in the long-term, will help China meet its sustainability challenges is another question altogether. Sceptical voices remain. David Tyfield, sociologist at Lancaster University and expert in low-carbon innovation in China, while broadly supportive of the eco-city concept, is concerned that political sensitivities surrounding such high-profile schemes will make it difficult to build “more than showcases”. He pointed to economic challenges too: “The bottom line is that, while there is a lot of demand for clean living spaces in China, there’s not much demand for paying a premium to live in a low-carbon city. And, if there’s not that demand, is it possible to have an eco-city in China that’s not just a luxury suburb?”

Kell’s belief is that, with the right leadership, standards and international help, the “eco” in China’s eco-city will be meaningful. Here’s hoping.

Olivia Boyd is assistant editor at chinadialogue.

Homepage image from shows a design for the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city.