Bill McKibben wrote in National Geographic, “Rizhao, in Shandong Province, is one of the hundreds of Chinese cities gearing up to really grow. The road into town is eight lanes wide, even though at the moment there's not much traffic. But the port, where great loads of iron ore arrive, is bustling, and Beijing has designated the shipping terminal as the "Eastern bridgehead of the new Euro-Asia continental bridge." A big sign exhorts the residents to "build a civilized city and be a civilized citizen." [Source: Bill McKibben, National Geographic, June 2011]

In other words, Rizhao is the kind of place that has scientists around the world deeply worried---China's rapid expansion and newfound wealth are pushing carbon emissions ever higher. It's the kind of growth that helped China surge past the United States in the past decade to become the world's largest source of global warming gases. And yet, after lunch at the Guangdian Hotel, the city's chief engineer, Yu Haibo, led me to the roof of the restaurant for another view. First we clambered over the hotel's solar-thermal system, an array of vacuum tubes that takes the sun's energy and turns it into all the hot water the kitchen and 102 rooms can possibly use. Then, from the edge of the roof, we took in a view of the spreading skyline. On top of every single building for blocks around a similar solar array sprouted. Solar is in at least 95 percent of all the buildings, Yu said proudly. "Some people say 99 percent, but I'm shy to say that."

Whatever the percentage, it's impressive---outside Honolulu, no city in the U.S. breaks single digits or even comes close. And Rizhao's solar water heaters are not an aberration. China now leads the planet in the installation of renewable energy technology---its turbines catch the most wind, and its factories produce the most solar cells.

“In the end, anecdote can take you only so far. Even data are often suspect in China, where local officials have a strong incentive to send rosy pictures off to Beijing. But here's what we know: China is growing at a rate no big country has ever grown at before, and that growth is opening real opportunities for environmental progress. Because it's putting up so many new buildings and power plants, the country can incorporate the latest technology more easily than countries with more mature economies. It's not just solar panels and wind turbines. For instance, some 25 cities are now putting in or expanding subway lines, and high-speed rail tracks are spreading in every direction. All that growth takes lots of steel and cement and hence pours carbon into the air---but in time it should drive down emissions.”

20080225-song urban tars spr fest u wash.jpg
Song era urban scene

New Tianjin Eco City in China

China and Singaporean have mapped out a huge eco city for 350,000 people in Tianjin that they hope will be model could be copied across developing countries. The buildings will be the latest word in energy efficiency: 60 percent of all waste will be recycled, and the settlement will be laid out in such a way as to encourage walking and discourage driving.[Source: Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, June 4, 2009]

The plan to build this settlement, known as Tianjin Eco-City, near the western shore of the Bohai, one of the most polluted seas in the world. Groundbreaking for the the first phase ---Tianjin, an “eco-business park,” over 150 hectares (370 acres)---took place in 2009. [Ibid]

Every building is to be insulated, double glazed and made entirely of materials that abide by the government's green standards. To cut car journeys by 90 percent, a light railway will pass close by every home, and zoning will ensure all residents have shops, schools and clinics within walking distance. It will be more verdant than almost any other city in China, with an average of 12 square meters (nearly 130 square feet) of parks or lawns or wetlands for each person. Domestic water use should be kept below 120 liters (26 gallons) per person each day, with more than half supplied by rain capture and recycled grey water. [Ibid]

One of the first aims of Tianjin Eco-City is show it can avoid the failures that doomed another eco-city, Dongtan (See Below). Goh Chye Boon, chief of the joint venture running the business park at Tianjin Eco-City, said his project had learned from Dongtan that it was better not to reach immediately for the skies. “We aspire to one day be a dream city like Dongtan but we want to take one credible step at a time,” he tolf The Guardian. “Dongtan inspired me, but I think when you reach too high, you may forget that the ultimate beneficiary must be the resident.” [Ibid]

According to The Guardian the “new city being built in Tianjin is in danger of going too far the other way by not being ambitious enough. Although it will use wind and geothermal power, its target of 20 percent of energy from renewable sources by 2020 is only a tiny improvement on the goal for the national average. The goal for carbon emissions is equally modest.” [Ibid]

Dongtan, the Failed Chinese Eco-City

In 2009, Dongtan---the planned eco-city on the salt flats of Chongming island in the Yangtze near Shanghai, which was supposed to be a model for the world by 2010---was pronounced dead. Designed by British eco-engineers and green-minded architects from the London-based consulting group, Arup, the Manhattan-size city was set up to run on renewable energy, be car-free, and recycle all of its water and have and have 25,000 people living in it when the Shanghai World Expo opened in 2010 and when it could be reached by a new tunnel and bridge.[Source: Fred Pearce, The Guardian, April 23, 2009]

British Prime Minister Tony Blair signed the deal to design and build Dongtan with Chinese president Hu Jin-tao. His deputy, John Prescott, went there twice. So did Britain's top urban planner, Peter Hall, and the London mayor Ken Livingstone, who wanted ideas for greening his urban landscape. Ma Cheng Liang, the man in charge of the project, said in early 2006: “We need to reduce our ecological footprint. Dongtan is very significant for Shanghai and the nation. We want to skip traditional industrialization in favor of ecological modernism. Dongtan is a chance to develop new ways of living.” [Ibid]

When Expo 2010 and the tunnel and bridge opened nothing was in the eco-city except half a dozen wind turbines and an organic farm. There were no houses, no water taxis, no sewage-recycling plant, no energy park. Mentioned of vanished from the Expo website. [Ibid]

Reasons Dongtan Failed

Peter Head, the main Arup designer of Dongtan, denied rumor that the project has been a casualty of the political fallout from the conviction of the city boss Chen Liangyu, jailed in 2008 for corruption. Rather said it was the result of the way China operated. “China does everything by the rules handed down from the top. There is a rule for everything. The width of roads, everything. That is how they have developed so fast, by being totally prescriptive. We wanted to change the rules in Dongtan, to do everything different. But when it comes to it, China cannot deliver that.” he said [Source: Fred Pearce, The Guardian, April 23, 2009]

Paul French, chief China analyst at Access Asia, said Dongtan had died because planners had failed to consult the local community and had aimed too high. “Dongtan was plonked down on everyone. They were going to do everything, but nothing has been realized. It's really important with environmental stuff that you only say what you can actually deliver or people will lose trust.” [Source: Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, June 4, 2009]

Ordos, China’s Modern Ghost Town

Ordos, Inner Mongolia is a beautiful modern city. It was built from the ground up in just five years. The streets are clean. And the neighborhoods are quiet. But something is missing. The city was built to accommodate nearly one million people. Yet, no one lives there.

The city of Ordos was a government project. It was likely conceived as an economic stimulus. Building is a sign of economic growth. So, local officials started building. But five years later no one has moved in. It’s a ghost town without any ghosts.

Ordos lies in the deserts of southern Inner Mongolia and near coal-mining area of Shaanxi province. It is home to the world's biggest coal company and the planet's most efficient mine. The extensive coal and gas deposits below Ordos has turned this arid, northern outpost into a boom town. The local economy grew eightfold between 2004 and 2009 while the population has swollen almost 20 per cent.

Ordos offers some insight into what happens when planned cities don’t work out as planned. Ordos had grown rich suppling coal and minerals to the rest of China. As of late 2010 the average per capita income was around $21,000, the highest in the nation and nearly triple the national average. Kangbashi (near Ordos in Inner Mongolia) is known in China as “the empty city.” Between the 2004 and 2010 it was transformed from two villages in the grassland to cluster of grandiose buildings, including an opera house shaped like two traditional Mongolian hats, a library that resembles three massive books and museum that looks like a giant copper boulder. Many of the units in the apartments blocks have been bought up by investors. The only thing that is missing is people. The city has a capacity of 300,000 people. As of 2010 it had about 30,000.

Bill McKibben wrote in National Geographic, “Ordos may be the fastest growing city in China; even by Chinese standards it has an endless number of construction cranes building an endless number of apartment blocks. The city's great central plaza looks as large as Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and towering statues of local-boy-made-good Genghis Khan rise from the concrete plain, dwarfing the few scattered tourists who have made the trek here. There's a huge new theater, a modernist museum, and a remarkable library built to look like leaning books. Coal built this Dubai-on-the-steppe. The area boasts one-sixth of the nation's total reserves, and as a result, the city's per capita income had risen to $20,000 by 2009. (The local government has set a goal of $25,000 by 2012.) It's the kind of place that needs some environmentalists. [Source: Bill McKibben, National Geographic, June 2011]

Shenyang Turns Green

Christina Larson of Yale Environment 360 wrote in The Guardian: “Almost every day of his childhood, He Xin remembers the skies in his hometown of Shenyang being gray. "If I wore a white shirt to school, by the end of the day it would be brown," recalls He, who was born in 1974, "and there would be a ring of black soot under the collar." He grew up in Shenyang (population 8 million), the capital of northeastern China's Liaoning province, a city famous for its heavy industry and manufacturing---and soot and pollution. Growing up, the view he remembers most vividly was looking out over Shenyang's fabled Tiexi industrial district, home to several large iron and steel plants and the site of China's first model workers village: "When I was a teenager, if I climbed a tall building to look out over Tiexi, all I would see was a forest of large smokestacks, chimneys, and dark, billowing smoke." [Source: Christina Larson, Yale Environment 360, part of the Guardian Environment Network, October 17, 2011]

But today all that is gone. No longer standing are Tiexi's iconic smokestacks and its blocks of red brick workers' dormitories, with their rows of coal-fired chimneys atop. Now He is the vice president of the environmental consultancy BioHaven and splits his time between Shenyang, Beijing, and St. Louis. To him, Shenyang looks almost unrecognizable today. "It's not perfect, but the air is cleaner... almost like it's not in China," he said, adding: "The only thing the same is the statue of Chairman Mao." He was referring to the saluting bronze figure that still dominates downtown People's Park, one of the largest statues of Mao Zedong in China.

If the city long known as the "elder brother" of industry for its central role in Mao's drive to industrialize China in the 1950s and '60s has recently made strides to clean up its act, He isn't the only one to take notice. Last November, the Urban China Initiative (UCI) , a think tank co-founded by McKinsey & Co., Columbia University, and Beijing's Tsinghua University, released its first "Urban Sustainability Index " for China. The index assessed sustainability in 112 cities by looking at 18 environmental indicators---from air pollution to waste recycling to mass transit---for the years 2004-2008. Among Chinese cities, Shenyang emerged as a leader in environmental improvement.

Curious to see the changes for myself, I visited Shenyang last month. For four days, the skies were eggshell blue, with intermittent clouds and one rain shower. As anyone who has lived in a Chinese city knows, air pollution levels vary day to day, with weather and the direction of the wind. But even if Shenyang's skies were not always as bright as what I saw, it's clear the city's run of unending gray days is over. Residents told me the skies were much clearer than ten years ago.

Of course, I wouldn't yet label Shenyang as "green" on par with, say, Portland, Maine. Construction dust accompanying the city's current building boom adds a new kind of air pollution, and while Shenyang's wastewater treatment rate of 77 percent is better than most Chinese cities (the average rate is 70 percent), it remains well below developed-world standards.

How Shenyang Cleaned Itself Up

According to UCI's research, Christina Larson of Yale Environment 360 wrote in The Guardian, Shenyang had removed virtually all traces of heavy industry from its core by 2010. In new residential areas, coal heating had been replaced by natural gas. Urban green space had increased 30 percent from 2005 to 2007. Perhaps most significantly, the heavy industry that does operate in the city---now relocated to facilities in the outer suburbs---is significantly less polluting than heavy industry elsewhere in China: Shenyang's plants emit about one-fifth the level of sulfur oxides as the national average in China. The reason, quite simply, is that the city tore down most of its old factories and literally started again, with newer facilities and desulfurization equipment. "The evolution is significant," Jonathan Woetzel, a director in McKinsey's Shanghai office, told me. [Source: Christina Larson, Yale Environment 360, part of the Guardian Environment Network, October 17, 2011]

The Tiexi district today is worlds away from the forest of smokestacks that He remembers. It now has new four-lane roads, upscale apartment complexes, a Carrefour store, and Shenyang's first Ikea (the sign outside reads: "No dream too big, No home too small"). Many residential streets are lined with gingko trees. Shenyang's other central districts were also in various stages of a makeover.

For large infrastructure projects, Shenyang has also benefited from the ability of its savvy and well-connected leaders to make their case in Beijing. Each year, the central government announces a pot of money for new municipal infrastructure projects that cities can bid for. The details of how money is transferred are opaque to outsiders. But Shenyang, ever a stronghold of the political establishment, has fared well. For instance, the city recently received a slice of funding from Beijing for its subway system, now under construction; the first line opened in 2010, and the second line is scheduled to open next year.

Money and unified political will make things happen. "One of our study's key findings was that those cities that have made the most environmental progress," McKinsey's Woetzel explained, "were often those that had the best coordination across departments and levels of government."

Short History of Shenyang’s Fight Against Pollution

Christina Larson of Yale Environment 360 wrote in The Guardian: Why did a once-infamous Smogville begin to shed its gray? To a large extent, it was necessity. Shenyang, which is the capital of Liaoning province in northeastern China, played a central role in Mao's drive to industrialize China. "To be honest with you, it is very hard to shut down a factory that still makes a lot of money," an air-quality specialist in Shenyang's environmental protection bureau told me. "But many of Shenyang's factories had 50-year-old equipment, and they were economically dead already." With a nod to the fact that economic and environmental ministries in China often have clashing priorities, she added, "It is hard to make any real progress without the other ministries [in agreement]." [Source: Christina Larson, Yale Environment 360, part of the Guardian Environment Network, October 17, 2011]

It's common in China for environmental officials to find themselves crusading to shut down lucrative but dirty factories, often in vain. But Shenyang turned out to be the exception that proves the rule about economic growth trumping green priorities in China. The reason many of its storied old factories shut down was because they had to---they simply weren't making money.

The change didn't happen overnight, nor was it painless. In the 1990s, Beijing began to withdraw support from many large state-owned enterprises, forcing them to sink or swim in the market. If Shenyang's factories represented China's state-of-the-art in the 1950s, a half-century later that was no longer true; the equipment was rusted, and the management systems bloated and inefficient. Hundreds of Shenyang's factories were closed, from foundries to farm-equipment manufacturers, and thousands of workers laid off. (By some estimates, the unemployment rate was twice the national average.) In the early 2000s, the demolitions began; wrecking crews worked day and night tearing down, block by block, the shell of the past.

During this time, Shenyang was lucky to have an innovative and charismatic environmental protection bureau chief, Li Chao. His popular initiatives included starting the bureau's environmental blog and establishing a citizen complaint line for air and noise pollution. But more importantly, his goals often aligned with those of the city's far more powerful construction and development ministries, as well as the district-level governments that managed reconstruction.

When it came time for rebuilding, Tiexi district manager Li Songlin knew there was no looking back. His goal was not to recreate an industrial district, but instead to build a foundation to tap into China's red-hot residential real-estate market and attract light manufacturing. To that end, he coordinated with the city's environmental protection bureau and the Shenyang Academy of Environmental Sciences, a local research institute, to develop a program for soil decontamination at the sites of old factories, such as the former Shenyang Smelting Plant, demolished in 2000. For that site, the government paid the $19 million cleanup tab. But the value of land around the plant, now converted to real estate, has risen many multiples that investment, according to the Xinhua news agency. In short, the green makeover made economic sense.

While much of China's recent environmental news is bleak, from water shortages to rising energy demands, Shenyang's example provides at least one beacon of hope. It just might be that, as with Pittsburgh and London before it (in the 1950s, London smog was so thick it hid the sun at noon), this Chinese city's dirtiest days may finally be behind it.

Image Sources: 1) Sholder pole, apartment side and Shanghai neighborhood, Louis Perrochon ; 2) Yangtze town,; 3) Shanghai suburb, New York Times ; 4) Plastic trees, Pico Poco blog; 5) Destruction of neighborhoods, 7) Broadtown, Atlantic Monthly

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated March 2012

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