China the Rise of the Green City: China's Rapid Urbanisation Is Cause for Concern, but Remarkable Initiatives in Cities Such as Rizhao, Wuhan and Beijing Are Leading to a Broader Endorsement of Sustainability Principles

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Look across the rooftops and walls of Rizhao, a coastal city of nearly three million on the Shandong Peninsula in China's north-east, and you will see rows of solar panels on nearly every building. The traffic signals and street and park lights downtown are powered by photovoltaic solar cells, and virtually all the city's residents use solar energy for their hot water.

Per capita incomes in this small Chinese city are even lower than most other cities in the region, but Rizhao's response to sustainability has been far from ordinary.

CSIRO's Xuemei Bai, who covered the initiative in 'State of the World 2007: Our Urban Future', an annual report published by the World Watch Institute, says the remarkable achievement resulted from a meeting of three factors: 'A government policy that encourages solar energy use and financially supports research and development, local solar panel industries that seized the opportunity and improved their products, and the strong political will of the city's leadership to adopt it.'

While solar power has been promoted in industrial countries through subsidies to the end user--often a partial refund of the purchase price--the Rizhao Government has instead invested 'upstream' in the local solar and water heater industry.

The ensuing technological breakthroughs have reduced the cost of a solar hot water heater to around the same price as an electric one, and a mix of regulation and public education has ensured wide adoption of the heaters. The city now mandates the incorporation of solar panels in all new buildings, and oversees the construction process to ensure the panels are correctly installed.

According to Phil McKenna at New Scientist magazine, the Chinese Government plans to extend the policy practice developed in Rizhao to all cities in China, and the mayor of Rizhao has been promoted to chair the city committee in the National People's Congress.

Rapid growth

China's cities are growing fast. How fast? China had 200 cities until just before 1980. This has more than tripled to 655 cities, according to Chinese National Bureau of Statistics data, and 177 of those have populations of more than a million people.

Government estimates put 44 per cent of China's population living in cities. However, Deng Wei, an urban economics researcher at Tsinghua University, reported in Science that the real figure is already 50 per cent, considering that migrant workers have registered their addresses as those of their rural homes.

Until the 1980s, China carried out nationwide recycling campaigns, with at least one recycling station in every urban district or small city. However, rising income levels and reduced government support have shrunk this to ah informal process carried out by the urban poor.

Progress has, however, been made in many areas--not just improvements to pollution control, ecological restoration and biodiversity conservation, but also improvements to environmental policy, law, funding mechanisms and implementing international treaties.

By the end of 2006, Chinese authorities had proposed more than 200 environmental policies and enacted at least 58 environmental laws and 17 regulations to control air and water pollution.

Though far from mature, environmental performance ratings and public disclosure have proven effective in getting Chinese firms to improve their environmental compliance. Green production processes are also helping to improve the efficiency of resource use, product quality and the environmental performance of Chinese factories.

Remarkable initiatives

Urbanisation is an inevitable fact in China. But it needs to be nudged to a more sustainable path, which is where sustainability initiatives such as Rizhao's are important. …