Low carbon, high hopes

Posted on 30 June 2008

Not too many years ago, cities around the world were competing with each other to build the world's tallest buildings. Now, we are seeing the emergence of a new competition: to build the world's greenest cities.

Indeed, watching the media, I notice that plans for "the world's greenest city" have now been announced in a few places, including China.

As a global environment organization, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) is often approached about urban greening initiatives and our national offices are involved in many of them. Developers, urban governments and NGOs such as ourselves are on a steep learning curve as to what makes a green city, so I would suggest that it is probably premature to invest too much energy into a debate on which city is greenest.

But the issue could not be more important - finding ways to build greener cities will be essential to achieving a more sustainable society.

Built on a plain east of the Taihang Mountain, the city of Baoding, 140 kms south of Beijing in Hebei province, is home to some 650,000 people who are part of an exciting initiative to lead less carbon-intensive lives.

These people have the same energy needs as those living in other parts of China, but as part of the Low-Carbon City Initiative, a joint project between WWF China and the regional government, their needs are met from green energy sources.

By any standards, figures for the city are impressive.

Since 2002, 150 new alternative energy companies have emerged in Baoding, making use of wind and solar power, bio-diesel, and energy efficiencies. Over 30 communities have installed hot-water solar-power systems. Thirty more projects are adopting BIPV (Building Integrated Photovoltaics). It represents the combination of proven renewable power generating technology and the building exterior using traditional building practices. Solar panels are planned and built along with the building structure. Technology and 50 others are under way to use solar photo-electricity lighting.

Last year, the city's economy grew by about 16 percent, and the part of that economy generated by the city's alternative energy industry was 50.9 percent higher than the previous year. Clearly the city's development has not been hampered by its use of sustainable energy, and it seems on track to become the "clean energy valley" for China, comparable to California's "Silicon Valley" for the IT industry.

One of the most impressive things about Baoding is that the city has not only developed the technologies, it has put them into production, and even applied them in model communities. For example, it has just presented the first windmill blade built using technology it has developed, and is building a "solar city" to use and showcase the solar technology it has produced.

Recently in Hong Kong, Baoding representatives promoted the city and its renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies to Hong Kong investors. I am told that there was much enthusiasm at the meeting, and that a number of contracts - totaling more than 11 billion yuan - were signed, sending a clear message that alternative energy technologies are moving in from the fringes to the mainstream.

Baoding is a pilot city in a push to promote low-carbon development in China. Like other countries around the world, China is experiencing a trend towards greater urbanization. As people move to cities, they bring with them soaring demands for energy.

What WWF hopes to see around the world is more cities like Baoding that are prepared to embrace alternative energy sources; more cities prepared to show that prosperity and sustainability can go hand-in-hand.

China is the world's most populous country, and its GDP has grown by 9-10 percent a year over recent decades. The country's rapid economic development means its demands for energy are huge. What happens in China matters to us all if we are to avoid dangerous climate change.

China's government has set its people a challenging target - it wants to reduce energy intensity by 20 per cent by 2010. It also aims to have 16 per cent of its energy coming from renewable sources by 2020. In order to achieve these goals, changes will be needed in urban planning, building design, transportation, resources recycling as well as energy technologies.

We will need a new economic model, one that decouples economic growth from carbon emissions. In Baoding, this is already happening, and more broadly in China as a whole it is encapsulated in the concepts of scientific development and a harmonious world.

The Baoding model is a compelling one for China and the world because it allows for both the needs of nature and the needs of development.

More cities around the world need to follow Baoding's pioneering path. Its low-carbon model offers us an alternative vision, one where human needs and economic development are supported by a robust mix of renewable energy sources and technical efficiencies and where nature continues to thrive.

This approach is an alternative for now, but a must for the future, and it is WWF's hope that more cities, more countries, follow in Baoding's footsteps and help create a cleaner, prosperous future. This is the way forward if we are to avoid dangerous climate change and yet enrich our lives through sustainable development.

The article was written by the Director General of WWF International James P. Leape and was published on his column on China Daily on 30 June 2008.