Wuxi-Düsseldorf and the challenge of green city partnerships

Can two very different cities in China and Germany find common solutions to climate change?

On first glance, it isn’t an obvious pairing. Düsseldorf is the fashion and advertising capital of Germany. Wuxi is a fast-growing industrial city on China’s east coast, with probably more coal plants than catwalks. But a German environmental think-tank has linked the two together in an international exercise designed to encourage cities to pool experiences on cutting emissions and saving resources.

Delve a little deeper and the reasons for twinning these cities become clearer. Düsseldorf, located in Germany’s manufacturing heartlands, has shaken off its old guise as a base for heavy industry and transformed itself into a services-oriented economy. This offers a potential model for a similar shift in Wuxi, says Daniel Vallentin, project coordinator at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, which is overseeing the programme. A consortium of Chinese research bodies, including Tsinghua University and the National Climate Centre, is also involved.

Both cities, moreover, have proved themselves “proactive” on environmental policy. Wuxi, already the centre of the Chinese solar-panel industry, was an early mover on adopting a low-carbon strategy and its carbon intensity target (emissions produced per unit of GDP) is higher than the nationwide goal.

This drive to clean up may have been spurred by an environmental disaster on the city’s doorstep, suggests Vallentin. Scenic Lake Tai, which splits Wuxi in two and is the heart of the local tourist industry, has in modern times been scarred by regular algal blooms that play havoc with the ecosystem. During the 2007 crisis, the worst to date, waste and untreated sewage triggered a massive outbreak of blue-green algae which swamped a water-treatment plant, cutting off supplies to 2 million people and driving tourists from Wuxi.

“It became very obvious that they had to do something to preserve that lake which is also important for economic reasons for the city. I think this might have been a trigger for an ambitious environmental policy, which overlapped to the low-carbon field,” says Vallentin.

Ambitious or not, Wuxi faces a mammoth decarbonising challenge. The Wuppertal project aims to aid the process by bringing in lessons learned through Germany’s mitigation efforts and writing a low-carbon roadmap for the city. Its researchers have already produced an emissions inventory for Wuxi in a bid to reveal the extent of greenhouse-gas emissions and their sources.

Düsseldorf, meanwhile, hopes to gain insights into rapid upscaling of new technologies – electric vehicles, for example – and managing large infrastructure projects.

Very different places

While the two cities want to learn from each other, Vallentin admits that readily transferable solutions can be hard to come by when conditions on the ground are as different as those in Wuxi and Düsseldorf.

Even what is understood by concepts like “sustainable” and “low-carbon” can vary dramatically. For example, in the German context the Wuppertal Institute defines “low-carbon” as an emission level of 2 tonnes of CO2 per capita. For Wuxi – currently at 13 tonnes per capita and rising – such a target is simply out of range.

“If we were to tell them you should bring your emissions down to 2 tonnes per capita, that would be highly unrealistic,” says Vallentin. “Such a target is very hard to reach and probably also not the appropriate ambition level for a city like Wuxi."

"Wuxi needs to enter a pathway where substantial reductions can be achieved, but they are at a much earlier stage than the Düsseldorf region.”

Prospects of success also differ between sectors. Most emissions in Wuxi come from the power sector and industry. The former is comparatively easy to make inroads into, says Vallentin, simply because that is where most progress has been made elsewhere: “There are some solutions ready, and a lot of examples in other cities, both in China and other world regions, of how emissions could be brought down.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, therefore, the Wuxi city government has shown specific interest in Germany’s policies and projects to promote renewable energy. Officials have been particularly taken with its model of local and regional energy agencies, which offer information and advice to renewable investors, says Vallentin. Details of how to set up such institutions will go into the roadmap, and a visit by a Chinese delegation is in the offing.

The industrial challenge is trickier, says Vallentin – “because you have to transform the whole economic structure of the city.”

“This is one of the main challenges in Wuxi – how to make sure that steel production is less emissions intensive, how to optimise processes, what alternative products could be produced in the future that are less material intensive, all these kinds of things.” Avoiding carbon leakage, where ambitious environmental targets at local level simply drive high-emitting companies to relocate, is also an issue, he says.

A crowded market

The Wuxi- Düsseldorf tie-up is one of the latest city-to-city climate partnerships in what appears to be a growing trend. Advocates point out that urban areas produce 80% of global greenhouse gas emissions and often argue these focused hook-ups are a more effective way of making progress than international climate negotiations.

This approach is most famously represented by the C40 group, a network of megacities seeking solutions to climate change threats currently headed up by New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. But new examples are popping up all the time. Last month, Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh and Rotterdam in the Netherlands, both cities built on low-lying deltas and vulnerable to sea-level rise, signed a new agreement to cooperate on climate adaptation.

“Cities have to learn from each other so that not every single city has to go through its own process of trial and error,” says Vallentin.

In the case of Wuxi, he says, this learning process needs to focus as much on how to share experiences as concrete policies. “They already have a lot of advanced regulations in place – command and control policies and standards – but mechanisms for knowledge sharing among different industry branches, this is something where they could benefit from the relationship with Düsseldorf .”

The same could be said of China’s multitudinous green city projects. The idea of finding shortcuts to cleaner urban living has caught on in China quickly over the past decade and prompted a blooming of schemes, from eco-cities to low-carbon pilot zones to carbon-trading pilot cities, even something called the “fifth generation city” – the idea of leapfrogging to a modern, high-tech hub without the intervening polluting stages, currently applied to the ancient city of Kashgar.

But there’s a problem. As Vallentin puts it, “everyone is more or less working on his own.”

Vallentin admits the crowded, fragmented landscape presents a challenge – not just for his scheme, but for China more broadly. One of the key recommendations to come out of a workshop his team held in Beijing this year was the creation of an umbrella organisation to promote dialogue between the country’s various sustainable urban programmes.

This prompts another question, however: how likely are the project’s recommendations to be implemented? A common complaint about Chinese green city schemes is that, despite lofty ambitions, paper ideals fail to turn into reality. Plans for Dongtan, an energy self-sufficient, zero-emissions city destined for mudflats near Shanghai, were flattened by a local corruption scandal. Another “model village”, Huangbaiyu in Liaoning province, fell far short of promised standards and surpassed the budget to the extent many locals couldn’t afford to live there.

Meanwhile, researchers have found little evidence of greener habits in China’s low-carbon pilot cities and, in a recent evaluation of China’s designated low-carbon industrial parks by the US Institute for Sustainable Communities, none hit the pass mark of 60%.

In the case of the Wuxi-Düsseldorf collaboration, the project – the focus of which is strategy – is set to end before implementation even starts. “Like many city projects in China,” says Vallentin. “Our funding reaches until the production of a roadmap but ends when it comes to implementing this roadmap…then it’s up to the Wuxi city government to follow up.”

The level of interest from the Wuxi partners makes him confident their findings will have an impact. But there are already hints implementation could be as much of a problem here as anywhere in China. Though Wuxi has a more advanced greenhouse-gas database than many other Chinese cities, the emissions inventory exercise uncovered serious gaps in the city’s data, for example in the transport and agricultural sectors. So far, however, there has been little movement to do anything about it.