Urbanization and industrialization is a filthy business. Industry pollutes. More of it just pollutes more. As nation after nation has gone through the industrialization phase of rapid development, each has had to trade-off the benefits of growth and their environmental costs. China is no exception, but it puts great store on being green. We are directed to a new article published by McKinsey & Co., the firm of management consultants, which asks the question, how green are China’s cities. Its answer? The country’s push for sustainable urban development shows mixed results. As a whole, China’s cities don’t meet global benchmarks for sustainability, but things are getting better and there are examples of successes for the laggards to follow.
The article is based on a paper first published last year by a joint team from the firm, Tsinghua University and New York’s Columbia University. Its Urban Sustainability Index uses data from 2004-2008 and covers 112 cities in China. It groups 18 indicators in to five categories, from the provision of basic needs such as clean water to political and policy commitment to sustainability.
The commonalities among the successful cities were “an unwavering focus on industrial restructuring, designing sensible transit systems and green space, pushing improvements through standards, monitoring and pricing, and exploring ways to make industries more resource efficient.” As might be expected, the successes also “displayed a clear, long-standing commitment to achieving their sustainable ‘vision”… “engineered a large degree of cooperation among relevant departments, for instance between those responsible for environmental protection and urban planning”…and “maintained commitment to their overall goals through several changes in leadership”.
The greenest cities do well across all these measures. Some examples: Tianjin has been consolidating heavy industry away from urban centers, a taking advantage of the moves to make fewer but larger new plants more energy efficient. Shenyang has now got almost all its heavy industry out of its center and is redeveloping the brownfields left behind as residential districts. Qingdao, arguably China’s greenest city, has pushed redevelopment projects to follow mass transit routes, increasing bus ridership at the expense of more heavily polluting private vehicles. Kunming is a pioneer in giving buses priority on roads. Nanning has developed three greenbelts along the Yongjiang river as part of the creation of urban woodlands and green areas to absorb carbon dioxide emissions. Shandong province officials publicly identified the region’s 1,000 biggest polluters and set aggressive waste reduction targets for each of them.
We don’t underestimate the difficulty of implementing green policies, especially in a country where they require considerable coordination between often competing bureaucracies and in which the yardsticks of success against which local officials are measured (and promoted) have been ones of economic growth. Improving the quality of urban life is an objective of the new five-year plan and a high policy priority for the leadership. Gains are being made. The overwhelming majority of the 18 indicators in the Urban Sustainability Index show improvement during the study period. Yet the relatively limited amount of success stories so far among 112 cities also tells its own story.