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December 28, 2010

A Golden Opportunity in China's Cities

This article originally appeared in ICLEI's Local Action blog.

The Climate Group recently released a report highlighting the transformational way in which Chinese cities are implementing low-carbon growth. Working in cooperation with the private sector and with the backing and direction of the central government, cities are transforming economically and industrially in the context of a national plan for low-carbon growth. As part of that effort, China has embarked on a groundbreaking initiative to turn five provinces and eight cities into “low-carbon economy pilots.” Comprehensive plans for low-carbon development have now been released for each of these cities, announcing to the world that local governments in China are serious about leadership on climate change.

The Climate Group’s report highlights the following key areas that Chinese cities have focused on in their strategic plans for low carbon growth:
  • Developing hubs of innovation and green industry, thereby restructuring local economies
  • Implementing energy efficiency measures in industry, buildings, and household appliances
  • Improving low carbon and public transportation
  • Increasingly generating energy from renewable sources
  • Executing strategies to reduce demand for energy and goods

This may very well be a model that is adopted in rapidly developing cities around the world. It will also certainly help China to meet its goal of reducing the carbon intensity of its economy 40-45 percent against 2005 levels by 2020—a goal that, if achieved, would bring China’s projected emissions for 2030 down to a more reasonable share of the world’s carbon budget.

Issues With Accounting Methodology

Interestingly, the Climate Group’s report also discusses a key challenge that these Chinese cities are facing: the lack of an established methodology for measuring and reporting carbon emissions at the city level. As a result, each city is measuring progress using its own approach, often in terms of energy intensity rather than total emissions targets.

ICLEI has recognized the need for such a methodology, and its new carbonn Cities Climate Registry (cCCR) uses a web-based platform for reporting emissions, benchmarking, and comparing the actions of local governments around the world. cCCR is an excellent tool for voluntary, standardized reporting of total carbon emissions and could certainly help to facilitate the transformation to target-driven, low-carbon growth upon which Chinese cities have set their sights.

Why China Must Transform Its Cities

Rapid economic growth in China presents at once a challenge and an opportunity to successfully combating climate change – and local governments in China are key actors.

In a paper released ahead of COP16 just a few weeks ago, leading climate economist Sir Nicholas Stern makes evident the need for a major transformation the Chinese economy, the world's largest emerging economy.

Stern’s argument goes like this: In order for the world to have a reasonable chance at avoiding an increase of global temperatures above two degrees Celsius, total global emissions must be “well below” 35 billion metric tons of CO2e by 2030. Chinese emissions are currently at about 9 billion metric tons of CO2e this year, and their economic growth rate has been estimated at about 9 percent. A quick calculation shows that if China's economy continues to grow at even a more modest rate of 7 percent while maintaining the same carbon intensity (measured by GHG output relative to economic growth – different from measuring total GHG emissions), total annual emissions in China will reach 35 billion metric tons of CO2e by 2030 — equal to the entire world’s carbon allowance!

The threat posed by this tremendous economic growth is clear. Complementing this phenomenon, however, is the impressive pace at which China continues to urbanize. In the last decade alone, the number of people living in Chinese cities jumped 36 percent. An increasingly urban population will also likely mean a greater concentration of greenhouse gas emissions in cities. In fact, cities are expected to account for 83 percent of China’s total energy consumption by 2030.

Herein lies a great opportunity: With many Chinese cities coming of age now, the implementation of smart growth strategies can dramatically influence the future greenhouse impact of these cities. The great news is that this is already starting to happen.

-- Gena Gammie


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