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.


  1. Esmee Hendriksen24 Feb 2017, 14:42:00

    This is an interesting post! I had never heard of this "eco-cities" project before. I think you did a good job at explaining the costs and benefits of such cities, and I think these projects show how desperate we have become to rapidly reduce climate change. To me it seems like the Chinese government is simply trying to find another excuse to build more cities through this eco cities project. I find the example of the Huangbaiyu eco city specifically quite interesting. This article (http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2015/09/22/chinas-eco-cities-are-often-neither-ecologically-friendly-nor-functional-cities/) states that this city has been unsuccessful, because the designer aimed at zero pollution, which turned out to be impossible, as not one single person actually wanted to live there after the project was completed. This reminded me of what we discussed in class, namely that zero pollution is impossible/not feasible.

    Another interesting aspect is that some eco cities in China were never even built, as investment money vanished in China's bureaucracy. This might be one of the reasons why the government continuous these projects: They make money off them. As soon as a city is labeled an "eco city", real estate prices rise tremendously.

    In conclusion, I totally agree with you that this is a bad development, and if the Chinese government really wants to put effort into mitigating the environmental impact of its cities, it should create policies to make existing buildings more efficient, instead of building useless, "fake green" projects.

  2. I really liked this blogpost, and must agree that the ecocities probably won't fix the problem, because they could never be large or affordable enough to house a significant part of China's population.

    However, I am not entirely sure what this means for whether or not the Chinese government should continue with this project: While there are of course "negative and counter intuitive externalities", I would argue that there will likely also be positive effects. These effects can both be direct, for instance more renewable energy will be produced, and indirect, increased spending on sustainable cities might lead to innovations which can be beneficial beyond these ecocities.

    Sure, these cities may not be the perfect entities that the Chinese government says they might be, and the benefits may not be distributed evenly, but I would argue that these are still not bad developments. I'd rather see some imperfect measures than none at all.


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