Is there a list of eco-friendly municipal developments in China, and how successful each project has been?

Every city in China has some sort of eco-friendly initiative ongoing, but there is no indicator of how successful each project is, as there has been almost now control on the outcomes of such projects so far. Until recently, environmental policies was just a way for Beijing to distribute some more credits to municipalities so they continue to sustain their growth. In many cities, this was just a pretext to build more plain real estate, and many eco-pilot projects are just 10000 sq meter of office building to host “future “ environmental projects.

Recently tough, Beijing government has been issuing more environmental-friendly policies, and an important environmental law (环法) that was in debate for years. This seems to go in the right direction, but it is too early to say anything about the real outcomes. Previous policies and announcements haven ‘t really show tangible results so there is any reason to be skeptical.

If you take the 2010-2015 green/smart cities plan, there are a few leading projects that actually try to solve an existing problem. A place like Baotou is trying some different approaches based on social districts, involving international  tech and R&D partners. Is this real or just another ghost project ? We still have to wait another 5-10 years to see the implementation.

Don ‘t be fulled (like many analysts) by the nice proposals called “the XXth city eco-planning framework “ that are frequently published. They aim at obtaining sizable budgets from Beijing to continue building random stuff. Despite their cool names, there is nothing to it really. Following the crash, many may not even start even after getting all funding and teams ready. What may eventually happen is :  some local tech firm will get part of the money to end it before the contract deadline. They will build something in a few months ; just in time to apply for the next round of funding.

There is another important form of “eco-friendly “ projects : projects that raised awareness about environment protection. In this regard, municipalities have been very timid as well. Fortunately, there are some active grassroots organizations in China doing outstanding work considering the situation.  Central China have been on the forefront. For some details, you may want to check this article I wrote some years ago : Water Sales vs Environmental Activists in Hubei | Future Challenges. You have also more high-profile organizations that are doing important work, like JUCCE which try to host initiation workshops inside local CCP administrations.

The main problem now is that the Chinese top government is reluctant to take the relay of those small organizations and provide them support to start a much-needed education campaign for local officials (and the whole population). In its last policy framework, Beijing has say that it wants to use NGOs as a counter-power to track and denounce pollution all over the country (read : China encourages environmental groups to sue polluters). Still, the main effect of Xi ‘s policies and his anti-corruption campaign has been to reinforce CCP ‘s role as the ultimate and unique source of power in the debate. This goes in the exactly in the opposite direction so it doesn ‘t look like NGO are going to gain power overnight. 

Beijng ‘s new industrial plan Made in China 2025  states also clearly that Chinese industries should modernize or relocate outside the country. Still, there is no clear incentives provided by these policies to act quickly. The recent market crash will largely recenter the economy towards the Western and Middle regions, where there still room for growth and development. For the next 10 years, local officials will do anything to keep pouring cheap concrete to postpone costly reforms and benefit from this advantage.

The Northern mining regions like Shaanxi or the Southern manufacturing area (Dongbei and the PRD) are reducing gas emissions quickly by closing the dirtiest production units. This is an important first step, but the hard work comes after. The big coastal cities will optimize their energy consumption as far as they can, but don ‘t except radical changes. I don ‘t see how projects like the Northern megacity of Jingjinji (Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei) or the reunion of PRD-Shenzhen-Hong Kong can be beneficial for the already dramatic situation of the environment in those regions.

Deeper reforms towards a low-carbon economy in China are going to be a long and painful political process. I am sure they will be also very good results in some places, because some municipalities will have dedicated teams doing serious job. You will have to look very seriously to find them, as they won ‘t advertise so much by fear of being outcast

  • and losing national credits.

There will be more big conferences, reports and position papers about  China ‘s “smart / green urban innovation “, but it will be very hard to see the real changes happening. With the recent crash, Beijing is trapped by the failure of its “growth-based social contract “ and it looks like CCP still have to exploit any available resources to stay in power, which is sort of a very bad news for the environment.

This text was originally published in quora.

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