Urban China: the challenge and the hope


An increasingly urban matter?

Humanity has become a predominantly urban species. This could not be truer in China, where the share of urban population went from only 19% in 1980 to 54% in 2014. Cities in China still today grow by roughly 12 million people every year. It is estimated that by 2030 they will house around 1 billion people – about 70% of China´s population. Clearly enough, if any meaningful action towards a more sustainable future is to be taken seriously, this will need to involve its cities.  While most Chinese cities are still affected by an incredibly high level of pollution, more and more people throughout the country are claiming their right to a “blue sky”. Could this growing public support joint with strong political leadership be the right drivers for rapid improvements in China´s environmental performance? 

A booming nation

In the past 50 years population in China has doubled, reaching almost 1.4 million people today. China is not only, and notoriously, the most populous country in the world but also the second world´s largest economy. In 2014 its GDP reached approximately $17,632 Billion. Only in 1980, this figure was 60 times smaller; likewise GDP per capita was 42 times smaller than it is today. This growth was accompanied by great improvements in standard of living and life expectancy. Compared to only 50 years ago, people in China live on average 25 years longer. While all of this happened, more and more people moved into cities. In fact, the share of China´s population living in cities went from 19% in 1980 to roughly 54% in 2014.

A bad reputation: the “factory” of the world

As all this exceptional growth and development unfolded, Chinese cities also gained an infamous reputation for their grey sky and almost unbreathable air.  In a country disreputably referred to as the “factory of the world”, this actually comes as no big surprise.  In fact, China´s economic boom has been characterised by the outburst of an extremely powerful manufacturing industry that paid little attention to the deleterious effect of its waste streams. With no little impact on the environment and the air quality of its cities, China became the largest manufacturer in the world as well as the world´s largest merchandise exporter, with more than $2.2 Trillion worth of goods exported around the world every year.   While just in 1990 it produced only less than 3% of global manufacturing output by value, in 2014 this value reached nearly 25%. Its manufacturing dominance in the production of certain goods is particularly astonishing.  It is estimated that around 90% of PC produced worldwide are made in China as well as 80% of world´s air conditioners and 70% of all mobile phones. Interestingly enough, 74% of solar PV panels are also produced in China.

The agonising burdens of development

While this fast-paced growth brought millions of Chinese people out of poverty, it also led China to become the world´s largest Greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter. This comes at no surprise considering that almost 70% of China´s entire primary energy supply comes from coal. In fact, only in 2010 China´s emitted 9,679.3 Megatons of CO2 equivalent, i.e. 22.7% of total global emissions. However it is important to note that in terms of per capita CO2 emissions, China is still behind many other countries. According to the World Bank Data, in 2011 the CO2 emission per capita in China equalled 6.7 metric tons compared to, for example, the US, with 17 metric tons per capita, or Russia, with 12.6 metric tons per capita. This is not a trivial fact. This means that although China is the largest net GHG emitter, individually its people are not emitting as much as the other largest emitters such as the USA or Russia. Considering the huge amount of products produced in China and exported in western countries, it is clear that we are all somehow related to those emissions.  But in China the issue goes well beyond CO2 emissions and climate change related risks. The pollution in cities is visible, tangible and adversely affects the health of millions of people living in cities today. Citizens of large Chinese metropolis are only very rarely blessed with a blue, clear sky.  A recent study showed that fine particle pollutants, known as PM2.5, led to about 257,000 premature deaths across 31 Chinese municipalities and provincial capitals in 2013 ( an average of about 90 in every 100,000 death).

There is still hope

Although the harsh reality of today´s situation in China might appear extremely discouraging, there is still reason to hope.

Firstly, this hope lies in people and their growing demand for a cleaner China. In fact, the visible impact of pollution is allowing more and more Chinese people to directly relate to environmental issues and to understand the urgency to change. This growing public consciousness will play a key role in driving the transition towards a more sustainable China.

Secondly, this hope lies in political leadership and on the ability of policies to drive the change needed. This hope is augmented when policy makers have the opportunity to undertake a fruitful dialogue on what policies could work best and when they can cooperate across governance levels. The role of international policy exchange and of international platforms therefore acquires a critical role.

The WFC in China

With this in mind and conscious of the fact that no meaningful action against climate change can be achieved without China on board, the World Future Council has recently started working in China with a focus on policies for Regenerative Urban Development. The role of policy-making in Chinese cities will be fundamental particularly considering that this urbanization process is not just the result of rapid economic growth but it is actually part of a formal national policy agenda. Premier Li Keqiang’s State Council and the central committee of the Communist Party released the “National New-type Urbanization Plan (2014-2020),” in March 2014 setting clear targets: by 2020 the country will have 60 percent of its people living in cities. This assertive political determination gives us great expectations that large transformations will happen in the next years in China. Citizens, affected every day by pollution, are increasingly longing for cleaner and more liveable cities.  If political leaders in China are also cohesively committed, there lies an inexorable formula for success.

Future of Cities Forum: time to get together and discuss

With the aim to create a platform for learning, dialogue and exchange on best policy solutions for cities in China, the WFC is organizing its 5th Future of Cities Forum in Beijing, China. In particular we would like to explore questions such as: what policy solutions could work best for the Chinese urban context? What is the role of cities in bringing these solutions forward? How should local policies be best integrated into national frameworks and international guidelines? As the new Sustainable Development Goals and the UN Habitat New Urban Agenda are soon to be finalized, these questions become ever more relevant.

This is why this year, the Future of Cities Forum will focus on the role and impact of international guidelines on cities and local governance. Participants will have the opportunity to actively engage in open and constructive dialogues, facilitated workshops and interactive round table discussions discussing the opportunities for cities in relation to the international processes such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals and Habitat III and how these can help steering concrete measures on the ground. We also intend to explore the role of horizontal cooperation among cities across the globe and ways to exchange of best practises and best policy solutions.

Further details on the Future of Cities Forum can be found on our website www.futureofcitiesforum.com






















Thursday, August 27th, 2015