Greening China's Mayors: A Q&A; with Dr. Steve Hammer of the Mayoral Training Program on Energy Smart Cities

What do you think needs to be the biggest lesson at these meetings?

We're trying to help mayors understand where they fit in and what cities can do to tackle this problem. You have to have a holistic approach to it. You can't just push the transit button or the industrial development button and hope problems will go away. You need access to water, the ability to treat waste water, urban planning, transit planning, green jobs, financing. All of these fit together in a meaningful way, and all relate to energy. You can't relate to energy as a narrow silo. We want the mayors to adopt that lesson and take that to heart.

As they plan sustainably, it's crucial to employ joined-up thinking. It's important to involve people who don't see energy as their responsibility, people trying to make sure people have roofs over their heads, waste people trying to make sure waste isn't a nuisance. It's about trying to empower waste managers or housing managers and getting them together.

How successful do you think the training has been?

Someone at the training center said that the mark of a successful session is that there are lots of questions at the end. Yesterday, after talking about links between energy and economic development and energy product pricing, there was a lot of buzz in the room.

This is the kind of topic that we have to spend more time on. When it comes to financing options, you need a lot of experts in the room to answer all the detailed questions they have. What's the best technology to try to grow as a new business sector in your area, for instance? One of our goals is to try and introduce mayors to experts. There are companies specifically hoping to grow by providing business expertise. We're trying to promote them.

What impact do you sense the recession and Beijing's stimulus plan are having on China's sustainable growth? There have been reports that the central government's "green" message isn't quite reaching the provinces.

They're spending US600 billion on their stimulus, and the way they're spending that is on rail rather than on highways. They're trying to use the money to leverage changes and advances in technology. They're being strategic about that. The US is too. The problem is that the economic downturn creates challenges, and it's often easier to go with what you know, to stick with the same economic development path.

The trick is to amplify the point that economic competitiveness can be enhanced by reducing energy expenditures, that reducing emissions can improve local public health. Look at the comparative advantage in any individual city, and how that marries up to a clean energy future, or an energy efficient future. We heard today from folks talking about solar panel manufacturing startups expanding in their city. To the extent that new government policies will support that, benefits will go to those cities.

We learned very quickly that you can't come here and try to lecture anybody on these issues, because a lot of thought has been given around the country to how to address these issues, and to balance that with the fact that they have abundant natural resources that cause environmental problems. And the same questions have been asked in the American Midwest and the South. It's not something unique to China.

What are some of the best lessons Chinese cities might offer the West?

We're still hoping to identify those. There are certainly practices from the US and the West that you just should not follow. Do not ignore the link between energy and jobs. Pay attention to timing of demand, not just total demand. Is china doing better with this, we're still trying to get a sense of that.

One of the most well known examples is Rizhao, a city in south China that boasts 99 percent solar hot water use in its residential buildings. Can the U.S. learn from that? Yeah, I'd say so. The energy saved in that city is significant. [Also see Dezhou. - Ed.] The systems are obviously cheaper here -- no more than 500 US dollars, and the payback is several years. When I looked at that system in NY State, it was much more expensive.

There's also a lot of attention to bus rapid transit systems. They're actively investing in subway systems. China's got 50 new subway systems coming online in the next thirty years according to a McKinsey study. That's a significant move to try and make sure that the growing car culture is not the alternative to a bicycle.

Considering how many cities China's still going to build from scratch, is China at an enviable position when it comes to developing innovative approaches to clean cities?

We did some research on buildings in Shanghai. One number that I just can't forget is that in 1980 the city had 112 buildings taller than 8 stories. Now it has 13,000. You're not starting from scratch when you have that level of development in the last 30 years.

In that sense, China faces the challenge of any existing city in the West. But yes, they're starting from scratch insofar as there will be 350 million new urban dwellers, and a lot of them will be living in densely populated new cities and in existing cities.

In New York City, the majority of energy use will be occurring in buildings that already exist today, not in new developments.

You've tried to address that through the sustainability plan you've worked on for New York City, PlaNYC? Can you talk about that?

Sure. New York's population is expected to grow by 900,000 people by 2030. That effects where we live, where we work. Can the existing infrastructure support that population growth?

The City developed an entirely new planning unit to try and bring together stakeholders within government and outside of government.

New York City has deserved a lot of recognition for its plan. It's admirable that they're being transparent about where things are going well, and how things could be improved. On Earth Day, the mayor announced four bills that deal with energy consumption in existing buildings, addressing labeling requirements and mandatory upgrades. He's trying to be very proactive at driving down building-related energy demand.

One of the biggest effects of Bloomberg's role relates to the iconic status that New York enjoys on the global stage. Other cities are paying attention. Officials from other countries are coming to talk to the sustainability team in City Hall. They're regularly hosting delegations in other cities asking what you did and how. New York plays a huge leadership role.

By comparison, what are the limitations mayors face in China?

They are hamstrung. They don't enjoy the level of powers they might want to implement a plan, one of the things they need need to fully understand is where they have ”capacity to act.” It's not clear how much policy-making authority a city has in relation to other tiers of government, from the provincial to the national levels.

In London's climate change plan, the emission reduction targets that the mayor wanted was a 60 percent reduction compared to the 1990 baseline. But when they did the analysis, they learned that City Hall had influence over just 15 percent of those emissions. The rest were more under the auspices of the central government and local authorities, as well as other boroughs, the private sector and individual home owners.

The mayor could influence new construction projects, transit, congestion pricing, but the bigger ticket items, like greening the national grid, establishing vehicle emission standards – these are not things the mayor has control over.

A lot of folks might think that mayors have more power here, but they haven't got their arms around development and sustainability plans in the way that western cities have. The central government has realized that. That's why they asked JUCCCE to come in to collaborate with the mayoral training center.

To the extent that talent is here – and it's something that China is going to have to develop over time and develop rather quickly, even if University-based talent and consulting talent is already here – the trick is corralling that expertise and putting it to the advantage of cities.

How does conservation fit in to plans to make China's cities greener?

New York is supposedly a fairly energy efficient city on a per household basis. But households here in China are much more abstemious on energy use. But energy prices are lower here. We can assume that someone with the same household income level might feel more comfortable wasting energy. But typical household incomes are a fraction compared to that of New York City. Energy can still be a significant part of a household's outlay. So conservation is still big in China. The training center has air conditioners, but as soon as we leave the room they open the windows.

Paying attention to this needs to be fundamental. We can't let people adopt bad habits just because their incomes rise. China is doing everything it can to reduce overall consumption. Public education is going to be a significant part of the government's national campaign.

And you have private initiatives, like JUCCCE. They're really trying to touch on all the different points of the system – the policy makers at the local levels, the management of the power grid, the advancement of clean tech like energy-efficient lightbulbs, public education, helping companies who are interested in energy efficiency and clean tech understand the Chinese marketplace.

More at TreeHugger on Green Cities in China
Eco-Towns: Three Models of Green Urban Planning
http://www.treehugger.com/files/2009/03/urban-china-magazine.php
China Reveals Plans for "Green Colored" Suburb City
When China's Green Goals Clash Against Its Red Ones
Pollution in China is Worse Than Ever, Citizens Say
China Launches Green Building Council: An Interview with Kevin Hydes, World GBC Chair

Tags: Beijing | China | Cities | Energy