China is urbanizing faster than any country in the world, and in 2006 alone 11 million housing units were built. The percentage of the Chinese population living in cities is set to rise from 60 percent today to 90 percent in 30 years. With buildings accounting for 40 to 45 percent of China's energy use—in terms of producing construction materials, constructing the buildings, and running them—the Chinese central government has launched a wave of new policies to push for stronger energy efficiency in buildings, but local governments have been slow to act on these mandates. China's green building industry codes are nearing completion, which could help spur the construction of true eco-cities. In China, new economic models of sustainable infrastructure are a hot topic and pilot projects are being planned across the country. At this China Environment Forum Environmental Film Festival screening, Caroline Harrison's Green Dragon addresses whether China is set to embrace the global green building movement or even leapfrog the rest of the world in terms of what it really means to be green.
The Meaning of "Green"
The term "green buildings" can be interpreted in many ways. In China, there are two camps of interpretation. The first relates green architecture to Chinese traditional architecture, which requires low levels of technology. This type of architecture maintains a comfortable temperature by adjusting the buildings' shape and employing locally available materials, such as natural insulation and south-facing windows. The second, held by architecture experts and urban planners internationally as well as by citizens in large Chinese cities, interprets the concept of green building as architecture that promotes energy (and sometimes water) efficiency and in some cases use materials from sustainable, low polluting sources. In other words, green buildings are meant to have a smaller ecological footprint than business-as-usual buildings.
Harrison's film presents another interpretation of green building: off grid. In the Green Dragon, experts discuss the potential of the eco-block, a pilot project initiated in Qingdao by UC Berkeley's Harrison Fraker. The eco-block is a response to China's current urbanization strategy of superblocks, or 1 kilometer by 1 kilometer gated apartment complexes. Over $35 million in infrastructure costs is spent connecting superblocks to sewer and electricity grids, accounting for several percentages of national GDP. In first-tier cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, development of grid infrastructure can basically keep up with demand for superblocks; however, in second- and third-tier cities, basic infrastructure is very expensive to install and cities struggle to build enough to keep pace with growth. The eco-block is self sufficient in terms of energy, solid waste and water.
It's Not Easy Being Green
Despite the Chinese central government's commitment to better energy efficiency, as demonstrated in 11th Five-Year Plan targets of 20 percent reduction energy use per unit of GDP by 2010, environmental regulations for energy efficient buildings remain few and far between and enforcement lags on rules that exist. As a result, green building assessment and energy efficiency certification fail to keep up with production even when "green" products proliferate in China's marketplace. In order to be a mass-replicable project, the eco-block requires regulation to redistribute the cost of the project. Although the eco-block does not cost more than a business-as-usual superblock, the savings and costs are not equally distributed across all stakeholders, for example the government is the party that will save on reduced need for infrastructure, but the costs are higher for the developer who pays more for off-grid infrastructure. Caroline Harrison noted that this financial loss could be recouped if developers can become property managers and charge for some of the off-grid energy, water and solid waste services.
Another major challenge is the artificially low cost of energy and utilities. Thus the "payback period" for investors on all the extra upfront costs by developers can take a long time. Increased prices could provide a major stimulus to encourage developers to favor green buildings. Lastly, the government's inability to protect companies' intellectual property discourages the newest, most efficient technology from ever entering China.
Caroline Harrison also noted that China lacks trade organizations to promote trade and communication between different groups using and creating green building technology. Many speakers in the Green Dragon documentary were concerned that although many good technologies existed and are in use in China, they are hard to find and case studies showing their success are even more difficult to locate.
Despite all these challenges, green buildings continue to be built in China with a growing sense of urgency. Particularly with regards to energy efficiency, many Chinese are becoming aware of the need to conserve resources both through policy changes and increasing energy shortages. Most encouraging has been the new Energy Conservation Law, which puts pressure on provinces to improve energy efficiency or face a demotion, represents one important catalyst to encourage local government support of green buildings.