As the planet warms, booming cities scramble to cut energy use

The fifth in a series of stories on China.

SHANGHAI -- A fifth of the world's construction cranes were at work here in the mid-1990s, pushing this city's skyline up from the banks of the Huangpu River.

High-rises went up fast but were generally not made to last. Steel was comparatively cheap, and electricity consumption was an afterthought.

"There was more concrete poured in Shanghai than all of Western Europe combined," said Rob Moult, Johnson Controls Inc.'s vice president for building efficiency in Asia. "When you're in that kind of market, who the hell cares about retrofitting a building?"

Shanghai and other big Chinese cities are still rising by the block, but construction practices are shifting in the country's emerging market economy. Developers are starting to embrace "green" design standards to meet tougher building codes as well as give their projects an edge in the crowded marketplace.

The confluence of forces has also created a $600 billion Chinese market for reducing energy consumption in existing buildings, estimated Ruiying Zhang, a Beijing-based analyst with the Energy Foundation, a grant-making organization. Fewer than 7 percent of China's buildings meet regional and local codes, which have been ramped up significantly in the past few years, she said.

Climate change could be the next catalyst. Seeing an opportunity to shrink China's massive carbon footprint, a coalition of global energy service companies, banks and nongovernmental organizations coordinated by former President Bill Clinton is preparing to expand a first-of-its-kind building energy retrofit program to China.

The Clinton Climate Initiative's $6 billion program -- aimed at replacing everything from inefficient windows and insulation to heating and cooling equipment -- more than doubles the size of the global retrofit market.

The cash could not come a moment sooner, program participants say.

"Scientific knowledge tells us that the next 10 years are crucial in terms of mitigating climate change, but can China do it fast enough?" asked Peggy Liu, chairwoman of the Joint U.S.-China Cooperation on Clean Energy (JUCCCE), a Shanghai-based nonprofit that is using a Clinton Foundation grant to distribute 10 million compact fluorescent lamps in Chinese buildings.

"The answer is no," Liu said, "unless there's international cooperation now to multiply the impact of financial resources and expertise."

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New urbanists go block by block to curb carbon, car congestion

Building self-sufficient "superblocks" may be the most sustainable solution to China's urban congestion and pollution problems, say the brains behind a development in the port city of Qingdao.

The "EcoBlock" concept, created by University of California, Berkeley, architecture students, is an off-the-grid enclave designed for roughly 10,000 units. Buildings ranging from five to 20 stories would cluster around central parks and retail hubs; the structures would get all of their energy from wind, waste and sunshine.

The goal is to break ground on the EcoBlock in Qingdao early next year and replicate the urban utopia throughout China, project officials said.

"Chinese are flocking to the cities," explained Jean Rogers, a principal in the San Francisco office of Arup, which is engineering the project. "The idea behind this is to create a more sustainable way of living."

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About This Report

Greenwire examines China’s environmental challenges as it prepares to host the XXIX Olympiad.


Previous Installments


Tree-planting projects take root in poor, drought-stricken provinces

LUSHAN COUNTY, HENAN PROVINCE, China -- Five years ago, the sun baked the Yellow River's barren floodplain and the winds swept its dry, sandy soil into the sky.

"When the locals cooked their food, they ate sand," said Zhang Wenjie, deputy forestry director for Henan Province, one of China's poorest and most populated provinces.

Today, 25 families who farm 47 acres of the floodplain here eat wheat and corn they grow behind rows of young poplars that keep the sandstorms at bay.

The trees are planted 10 meters apart -- wide enough to soak up sunlight but close enough to trap moisture. And when the trees grow large enough to shade the crops, some farmers raise geese instead.

The poplars and the birds will be harvested eventually. By maximizing the land use, the farmers are supplementing their income by about $1,100 per hectare (2.471 acres), according to the World Bank, which provided seed money for the project. Government officials are trying to replicate the forest farmers' economic success -- but the environment could reap perhaps the biggest gains, some observers say.

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Prosperity brings gridlock, smog

BEIJING -- Fueled by a booming economy, more than a thousand additional cars a day take to Beijing's ring roads and imperial grid.

China's second-largest city has more than 3 million automobiles, up a staggering sixfold from a decade ago.

More mobility means more freedom to visit the Great Wall or the Yellow Sea, but the onslaught of autos also means more congestion and pollution here. So as Beijing and other Chinese cities grow bigger and wealthier, urban planners say, the most pressing challenge is finding a way that cars, commerce and clean air can coexist.

Some want more roads, subways and buses. Others want more alternative-fuel vehicles and higher driving fees. Most agree that banning private cars won't work over the long term.

"This is much more complex than the young people having money to buy cars," said Lee Schipper, a veteran transportation analyst with the World Resources Institute. "This is about making a statement that China's made it."

China was known as the "Bicycle Kingdom" 30 years ago when the country's de facto leader, Deng Xiaoping, began sweeping economic reforms. The Communist country's real gross domestic product has grown at an average rate of almost 10 percent annually since then, putting the industrial revolution and automobile age on a collision course.

Peddlers with pushcarts plod alongside mopeds, buses and taxis during rush hour in Beijing. Sleek sedans honk and push pedestrians and bicycles aside. And the balance of wheels seems to change with each new fortune.

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Project aims to assure coal's still king in a warming world

BEIJING -- Coal is firing China's climb to superpower status.

The world's most populous nation built an average of two coal-burning power plants a week last year. Hundreds more coal power plants are slated to come online during the next few years, even as China expands its renewable energy portfolio.

Combustion of fossil fuels on such a scale poses potentially dire global consequences, scientists say, so a coalition of Chinese and U.S. energy companies is trying to develop a technological fix.

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Can energy efficiency fuel an industrial evolution?

SHANGHAI -- From sunup to sundown in China Energy Recovery Inc.'s warehouse here, men in hard hats and overalls drill, press and solder steel into cylinders the size of a tractor trailer. And when the day is done, nine more energy-saving boilers are ready for China's industrial evolution.

Many, many more are needed.

The world's most populous nation built about two coal-fired power plants a week last year. Scores of inefficient steel, paper, cement, chemical and textile factories consumed most of the energy. Business boomed. But after years of double-digit economic growth, China is going on an energy diet.

The Red Dragon is targeting 8 percent gross domestic product growth this year. China's current five-year plan, meanwhile, calls for cutting energy consumption 20 percent per unit of GDP by 2010 while reducing carbon dioxide and other emissions 10 percent.

Old habits must change first.

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As games approach, China struggles to clean its air and green its image

BEIJING -- The 1,500-meter race is the ultimate test of strength and speed. World-record-holder Steve Ovett had what it takes.

But in the 1984 Olympics' 1,500-meter final in smoggy Los Angeles, Ovett gasped to keep pace with fellow Briton and archrival Sebastian Coe. Running fourth as the bell signaled the final lap, Ovett doubled over with chest pains.

Coe won the gold, but asthma beat Ovett. The ozone over central Los Angeles peaked at more than 235 micrograms per cubic meter during the games, searing his lungs.

"Pollution was one of the major factors in my having exercise-induced asthma in Los Angeles," Ovett told the journal Nature, two decades after his final Olympic race. "There was a significant number of sufferers but not much was reported."

Times have changed. As Beijing prepares to host the XXIX Olympiad next month, the capital's filthy air is the subject of global scrutiny.

Flecks of dust and ash in Beijing's air surpassed 600 micrograms per cubic meter last December -- a record for the year and 12 times beyond the maximum recommended by the World Health Organization. During stretches without wind or rain, the gray bouillabaisse shrouds ancient temples and modern skyscrapers.

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