24 Feb 2017

Will China's eco-cities be effective?

Muhammad writes*

Most of the inhabitants of our planet are aware that China is the factory of the world. It therefore does not seem strange to assume that their mass production has affected their country, not only in terms of economy in which we witness an increasing consumer society, but also with greenhouse gas emissions and local pollution in their cities. As the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases and consumer of as much coal as the rest of the world combined, China must desperately find alternatives for their current situation of having a coal based energy system. In its frantic chase to reach western modernisation, by urbanising and wanting to rise economically, constant chunks of the country have crumbled down into ecological wastelands.

The air people breathe is deadly, the water is not drinkable, the soil is poisonous, the water levels are in constant threat of being sucked dry, rivers and lakes are on the verge of disappearing if they have not already, and cities in themselves are becoming heat islands. In fact, between the years 2000 and 2005, coal consumption increased by 75% [pdf] and air pollution emissions have remained constant or in some instances have increased. It seems evident that such a system is not sustainable, in terms increasing healthcare demands and decreasing environmental conditions.

As an attempt to resolve the problems driven from their current energy system, China have started a project that aims to build eco-cities nation wide. These eco-cities are essentially the most environmentally friendly urban schemes an architect could design. A principal feature is that these cities fully operate on solar energy since all housing operations as well as public infrastructures have solar panels attached to them. It all sounds great, but after reviewing the practicalities of this action plan, one begs to differ. A certain Anna-Karin Gronroos states that “building something from scratch and calling it an ecocity isn’t the solution either”. She is essentially suggesting that there are costs to creating such environmentally friendly cities, and that the creation will have negative and counter intuitive externalities. One has to agree with Anna, especially given the fact that these cities will only be accessible by a certain percentage of the population simply because “they are just too small, too remote, too class-exclusive and expensive”. Therefore, due to the fact that these cities can only host individuals with a certain level of socioeconomic status, we have to reject the claim that these cities would be providing "free power" and have to view this project as a long term investment from the governing body aimed towards the middle and upper class.

Bottom Line China’s amazing recent economic performance has been fuelled by urban industrial growth that is being outweighed by environmental costs. Eco-cities are a fancy and flashy attempt to solve their issues, but constructing them nationwide simply does not seem tangible as it would not be tackling the bigger problem of population growth and income inequality.

* Please comment on these posts from my environmental economics students, to help them with unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data, etc.