Many in the Western world point an accusatory finger at China but the West could learn a lot from China about sustainable growth.
Many in the Western world point an accusatory finger at China — for exporting shoddy goods, for human-rights abuses, for continuing development of coal-fired power plants, for unbelievable environmental damage caused by the country’s explosive industrial growth.
Yet China is also a nation that is doing something right, something that has many in the West watching closely and, perhaps, learning a lot about, of all things, sustainable development.
China is building Dongtan, a sustainable new city, or “eco-city,” where construction is to begin within a few weeks. It will be the first in the world, although Masdar City in Abu Dhabi will be a close second, breaking ground in a few months. Both will be templates of a sort for green development. But both will also be living laboratories for the expansion of the world’s knowledge of sustainability and for the development of environmentally benign products.
China, in recent years, has seemed so hell-bent on economic development that the environment has suffered enormously. Visitors to Beijing or Shanghai invariably comment about the terrible air quality, and there have been genuine concerns for athletes having to compete in Beijing’s poisonous air during this year’s Olympic Games.
Dongtan will occupy part of Chongming Island, at the mouth of the Yangtze River across from Shanghai. The first condominiums and commercial space will hit the market by 2010, at about the time that an 18-mile bridge and tunnel combination (carrying a subway extension) will link the new city to Shanghai’s new international airport.
By 2050 the city is to have a half-million residents. There will be abundant public transit, but only hybrid cars and trucks. The city will use only renewable energy, and virtually all solid waste will be recycled.
There will be no oil-fuelled transportation.
No one is thinking of Dongtan as a one-off project. There will be at least three other such eco-cities built around Shanghai, as the Chinese government looks for ways to manage growth rather than block it.
The city’s economy is growing three times faster than the United States economy did at the height of the high-tech boom a decade ago. More than 2,000 high-rise buildings have gone up in the last decade. Two of the city’s most striking buildings—the Jin Mao Tower and the Pearl TV Tower, occupy land that was a rice paddy 20 years ago. About 130 million people live within a 2 1/2 - hour drive of the downtown core.
Motivated by the work of American architect/designer/philosopher William McDonough, the Chinese government is planning to build 300 or more new towns or cities, featuring construction using local, sustainable materials. The country has become a world leader in wind-power technology, and plans to be producing 20 gigawatts by 2020, an objective experts say will easily be surpassed. It is wind power that will produce most of Dongtan’s electricity.
China has also become a major world player in fuel-cell and solar-energy research.
The scale of all this is enormous, and while the Dongtan and Shanghai are part of it, they are just a part. Uncounted billions of dollars will be invested to accommodate future growth while stemming the environmental damage already done, and strategies for funding all the necessary work are well under way.
The Arup Group, a huge British-based international engineering and design, is spearheading the Dongtan development. It has also joined forces with HSBC Sustainable Development Capital, another British firm, to develop funding strategies. Part of their plan involves creating, along with Tongji University of Shanghai, the Dongtan Institute for Sustainability as a repository for knowledge about sustainability.
Almost everything about China’s plans for managing explosive growth is unconventional—and terribly important. Because if China pulls it off, it will give the rest of the world a rare opportunity to see that growth can happen in a different way.
Korky Koroluk is an Ottawa-based freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org