Is China Ready to Embrace Sustainability?

Over the next two decades, China’s urban population is projected to increase by 250 million people; these city dwellers use up to 3.5 times more energy than rural denizens. Yet China has relatively few fuel resources, and burning coal—its most plentiful fossil fuel—has polluted the country and contributed to the acid rain that falls in one-third of Chinese cities. Admitting to these environmental concerns, representatives from China’s Ministry of Construction took a first step toward addressing them by announcing an ambitious sustainable growth plan for China; the scheme and its aims were outlined at the U.S. Green Building Council’s Greenbuild conference, held November 10-11 in Portland, Oregon.

Some of the plan’s objectives are outright astonishing. For example, Qiu Baoxing, vice minister of the Ministry of Construction, People’s Republic of China, told the conference’s 6000 attendees that by the end of 2010, all Chinese cities will be expected to reduce their buildings’ energy use by 50 percent; by 2020, that figure will be 65 percent. Furthermore, by 2010, 25 percent of existing residential and public buildings in the country’s large cities will be retrofitted to be greener; that number will be 15 percent in medium-sized cities and 10 percent in small cities. Over 80 million square meters of building space will be powered using solar and other renewable energies.

“Green building in China has just started,” Qiu said, mentioning the country’s upcoming International Intelligent and Green Building Technologies and Products Conference & Expo, set to take place March 28-30 in Beijing. He also mentioned China’s new National Green Building Innovation Award, to be presented to sustainable building projects, materials, and products that met specific scientific and standardized criteria.

If China follows the sustainability plan announced by Minister Qiu, the country will essentially commit itself to reconstructing a sizable portion of its built environment. In fact, China would embark on one of the largest rebuilding projects in world history. But there are some who doubt the extent to which the former Communist country will carry through with its green intentions.

“I get the sense that they understand the magnitude of the problem, at least at the government level,” says Huston Eubank, a principal with the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Green Development Services Team. “But the trick now is to translate that down into the trenches where the work is being done.”

And there remain some questions as to who will do that work. At Greenbuild, China’s representatives explicitly invited American and European firms to seek business in their country. But privately, some at the conference suggested that China wants to amass international expertise, only to pass it on to domestic firms, who would then handle the brunt of design and construction.

Yet the Ministry of Construction’s Lai Ming insists that in this situation, it’s not subterfuge that the West should worry about, but rather bridging cultural gaps. “The most important thing is you need to know China,” he said. “You need to know the situation.”

Lai argues that too many Western firms ignore the government’s counsel about how to approach business in China. He cited a Canadian sustainable insulation manufacturer that was advised to learn about local building practices and partner with a Chinese firm; instead, the Canadian company immediately jumped into marketing and distribution, only to have little success. “They came back a year later and said they were starting over,” Lai recalls, this time first researching local building conditions and preferences. “And now they are doing very well.”

It’s too early to say whether green building in China will meet the government’s ambitious targets, or how much business that will ultimately mean for Western firms. But at this year’s gathering of America’s top green designers and builders, a significant amount of the attention was turned to sustainable architecture in the Pacific Rim—perhaps for the first time.

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