If green building matters anywhere, it's China. Consider that buildings account for upwards of 40 percent of global energy use, and then put this in your chimney and smoke it: between now and 2015 roughly half of the world's new building construction will take place in China. The country's booming building industry presents a serious threat to the environment—and an enormous opportunity for change. That's exactly where the Green Dragon Media Project fits in.
After the jump, I ask the founders how this exceptional film and website started, where China's going, and how skeptical we need to be about the country's green building revolution The project isn't just an eye-opening film. The website that accompanies it is a must-bookmark trove of information for those in need of useful information on China's green building sector or who have no idea what green building is. It provides a fascinating look at how government officials, private entrepreneurs, NGOs, architects and developers in China are solving one of the world's most serious problems. (One take-away: it's much easier to build green in China than anywhere else--and much harder too.)
The creators, former BBC producer Caroline Campbell and graduate student of environmental policy Max Perelman, met at a mixer in San Francisco in 2006. Three weeks later they were traveling to China to start shooting. When I asked Max by email why green building is so important, he described what kind of environmentalist he isn't:
MP: Many environmentalists establish "protected areas", focused on protecting threatened biodiversity hotspots around the world. But global climate change knows know boundaries. What will happen to these parks when climate change fundamentally alters the habitats?
Other environmentalists are concerned with air, water, land-based pollution. When I mention to Chinese that I come from Pittsburgh they always exclaim, "Oh! Steel!" Yes, Pittsburgh is famous for steel but there is no steel there today -- only beautiful blue skies, green parks and three (relatively) clean rivers. All these mass steel production has gone overseas and, with it, the pollution. In the 19th and early-20th C., Pittsburgh's air pollution was so bad that they had to keep the streetlights on all day and all the stone building facades were caked black with soot. But the earth has recovered from the horrible mess we caused. This takes time but it is on the order of decades or centuries. Climate change works on the order of tens of thousands of years. I am concerned by the relative permanence of the damage we are causing to the planet's fundamental balance.
What is the real status of green building in China now? There's a sense that a lot of green building in China is "greenwashing." Should we be cynical, and what reasons are there for hope?
MP: Cynicism rarely helps — we launched Green Dragon in a response to the enormous amount of unconstructive negative stories about China in the US media. Let's stick to the facts. In 2000, [demonstration building] Accord 21 launched in Beijing and was the first truly green building. According to EMSI, there are 4 million sqm of LEED-certified green building area in China (vs. 12.5 million in the US) and growth from 2006 has been over 130%.
The Chinese green building movement is growing fast but it still has a ways to go. Rob Watson, the father of LEED, says that China is still about 2 years away from the tipping point. I am hopeful because I see the Chinese government recognizing the crisis and acting to partner with international specialists and local green building leaders in a way that will turn these environmental issues into opportunities for international collaboration and sustainable development. Jason Hu [of China Merchants Property] gives me hope. He's a mainland Chinese, he's one of the country's largest developers, but he knows the issues, can talk the environmental talk, and is taking the initiative to transform the industry.
What's preventing good green building from happening in China? Is it much like the challenges to green building that exist everywhere else or different?
MP: The barriers are fundamentally the same but with a Chinese twist and on a Chinese scale. Many issues are typical to a growing industry:
- lack of 3rd-party trade organizations
- an uneven distribution of information across industry stakeholders
- insufficient product standards and certifications
- insufficient market demand
- lack of pilot projects
The China twist — size, speed and cost
- The government is short of resources to enforce regulations which opens the door to market-based incentives. China is looking to international expertise on how best to design these mechanisms.
- Waste disposal, water, electricity and fossil fuel prices are kept artificially low by the government. This reduces incentives to increase efficiency and makes it difficult for renewable energy to compete.
- What China lacks in technical expertise or quality assurance, it makes up for in the enormous amount of labor it can allocate to a project, the speed with which it can build and their uncanny skill for mass replicating new innovations.
The leaders we interviewed and the professionals who see our film will take care of many of the market fundamentals.
What can we all do?
- Raise consumer demand — Chinese developers are extremely savvy and will build green if consumers include environmental factors in their purchase decisions.
- Focus on the mayors — these local government leaders are crucial to steering China along a sustainable development path.
- Be constructive and think in terms of opportunities for collaboration. China will go green eventually. But how much damage will be done until then and will the West lose global market leadership in the process?
Are high-end developers China's great green hope—and what about all the other millions of square meters of housing?
MP: This seems to be turning out to be the sector with the most green growth. Of course, high-end means that the profit margins are higher and more expensive design and products can be used. But it also means that the major project stakeholders will be high-end — these are large multinationals with a stake in the long-term game and a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) strategy. Example developers in China are China Merchants, Shui On, Modern Group. It will be a long time before the mid to low-end residential market will get in on the game.
Green Dragon's work hasn't stopped. Max has launched into a straw-bale building project in China's northeast that will train 200 builders and construct 250 buildings, with a goal of reducing CO2 by 80,000 tons. And another film is in the works, one aimed at China's mayors, who are often directly involved in forming construction policies. To donate, go here.
Green Dragon Media Project.