How to spot a fake eco-city

A low-carbon craze is sweeping through China, but some say it’s just a mirage. Urban-planning expert Li Xun tells Zhang Yue and Xu Nan why only a fraction of eco-projects live up to the name.

Almost a third of China’s 600 cities now have targets to become low-carbon hubs or eco-cities. That might sound like a good thing, but the dynamics behind these labels are complex. Li Xun, secretary of the Chinese Society for Urban Studies and vice-director of the Chinese Academy of Urban Planning and Design, estimates that only one fifth of these projects actually match low-carbon or ecological ideals. In conversation with website, he also argues that the managers of these schemes must take two important factors into account: suitability for local conditions and the “whole lifespan” of projects. “Low-carbon city” and “eco-city” have become buzzwords in China’s urban planning and construction circles, while manufacturers are producing products with “low-carbon” labels. It seems we’ve been swept up by a low-carbon fever. Many western nations have already attempted to build low-carbon cities, with mixed results: will we see the same problems when that model is applied in China?

Li Xun: The term “low-carbon” covers several concepts. One is the use of absolute values to measure whether something is high or low carbon. Unlike with the term ”ecological”, where we talk about circular development, the degree to which you are low carbon can be measured in per capita emissions – in one year, how much carbon does one person create?

For example, Shanghai citizens emit an average of 10 tonnes of carbon each per year, higher than Beijing’s eight tonnes. The main reason for Beijing’s high emissions is the number of cars on the road: Beijing people love cars. In Shanghai, the issue is concentration of industry.

What’s high carbon, what’s low carbon? For cities, we can use a relative measure: in the process of growth – of creating one dollar or one yuan of wealth – how much carbon is emitted? This is carbon intensity of the economy and it can be used as a measure. Or the low-carbon concept could be seen as a process. For example, if Beijing’s per capita emissions fall from eight tonnes to six tonnes, or to the world average of four tonnes, we would say that process is a low-carbon process.

Describing cities as low-carbon, ecological, green – for me, the first thing is biodiversity: the people in the city, the things, the animals, all co-exist. Second is the circular economy. In the industrial revolution, development was linear, meaning that resources turned into rubbish. In circular development, everything can be restored to its original state, and waste made valuable again.

To date, there’s no city in the world that can genuinely call itself an ecological city – they’re just moving in that direction. Malmo in Sweden, Freiburg in Germany, they’ve done more than most in pursuit of that target.

IF: Of China’s 600 cities almost 200 have low-carbon city or eco-city targets, with some already building actual projects or even proposing standardised systems. From what you’ve seen, are these projects actually low-carbon?

LX: I don’t want to say how many are “fake”, but I can say that about one fifth are being carried out in accordance with actual low-carbon and ecological principles. Overall, cities contribute 75% of total greenhouse-gas emissions.

IF: What’s the root cause of all the fake low-carbon projects?

LX: I think people aren’t clear what the label means. Academics aren’t clear, the people aren’t clear. Everyone just has a fuzzy idea.

IF: So how do you think all these confused ideas of low-carbon will evolve in the future?

LX: Are we turning our backs on low-carbon and ecological ideals, all the while believing we are moving towards them? Are they fake low-carbon schemes? Or are there even cases that are actively anti-low carbon, anti-eco? Well, yes, there are.

IF: Do you have any actual examples?

LX: At the Shanghai World Expo last year, they had an underground refuse collection system, actually under the Expo park. The Tianjin eco-city also has one, as has Caofeidian eco-city. Beijing’s CBD and the CBD east expansion will follow suit.

But to analyse its effectiveness, you need to measure how much material was required to build it, what it cost, how much carbon was emitted to produce the material, how much carbon is emitted in order to power the system, and add it all up. Then compare it with normal collection by refuse trucks – have emissions actually decreased or not?

IF: Was the Expo itself a fake low-carbon project then?

LX: I’m not saying that the Expo shouldn’t have used the refuse system, just that if it’s going to be used everywhere, then we need to work out if it’s high-carbon or low-carbon. It needs to be measured. I think it will only be meaningful if it’s used in densely populated areas, where the demand for environmental quality is highest, like at the Expo or in Beijing’s CBD.

It’s the same principle as when we compare air and train travel. Which has higher emissions? Generally people think air travel does, and that train travel is low-carbon. But others have worked out that, per kilometre travelled, planes aren’t necessarily higher carbon. This rests on the concept of “whole lifecycle” – where you include the travel, the depots, the tracks, the land used, from route design to construction. And planes actually use very little material.

So when it comes to designing low-carbon and ecological cities, we might think we’re on the road to heaven, but actually we’re going the opposite direction. I’d like to propose two principles. First, suitability for local conditions: that is, in urban planning, local circumstances need to be considered when deciding what is low-carbon or ecological.

Take green buildings as an example. In the north of China, green buildings mean insulation. Winter is freezing, so energy-saving is mostly achieved by insulating structures. But the south is different. In the south, one of the things green buildings need to provide is natural ventilation. So you can’t do what you’d do in the north and have windows that don’t open. The north needs to retain warmth, the south needs ventilation. In the south, you also need shade.

The second principle is to calculate emissions over the whole lifespan of a project. You can’t just say something is low-carbon – start with the equipment and materials: where did they come from? And then move all the way through the process to what happens to the materials when they are discarded. Use that whole lifespan to work out if something is high-carbon or low-carbon.

IF: What changes do we need to fulfil our low-carbon aims?

LX: We can’t pursue luxury lifestyles anymore – we need to be more moderate. If you just think about the individual, then the whole system, the whole planet, will collapse. China can’t live the way the Americans do. We’ve had that dream for decades, but it’s time to wake up.

This article was first published on

Zhang Yue is city editor with Xu Nan is communications and media consultant at the Energy Foundation’s Beijing office.
Li Xun is secretary of the Chinese Society for Urban Studies and vice-director of the Chinese Academy of Urban Planning and Design. 

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