Turning grey China green

China could save 135 million tonnes of coal a year by making its big buildings energy efficient, but can it convince the developers to go green? Alex Pasternack reports from Beijing.

"This is not the White House." Qiu Baoxing, China’s deputy minister of construction, stood before a screen showing an elaborate pearl-colored palace at an international building conference last March. "This is the office building of a district government," he said. He was not simply outing another local government official misusing funds to build palatial digs. China’s biggest construction official was aiming directly at big building projects that, due to their heavy use of materials and energy, are helping to bankrupt China on an environmental level. According to a recent report by Qiu’s office, 95% of existing buildings in China are energy intensive, bleeding energy waste and consuming two or three times as much energy as that in most industrialised countries. And China’s incomes—and its buildings—are just starting to grow.

But as concerns heat up over its energy use and impact on the planet, the international call for sustainable buildings, already being heard in cities across the US and Europe, is starting to spread on the world’s biggest construction site.

That call was amplified a few days after Qiu spoke in Beijing by the UN, which released a report noting that the global building sector accounts for 30% to 40% of the world’s energy use, much of that manageable through existing technologies like insulation,
insulated windows, solar shading, humidity-proof facades, more efficient lighting and electrical appliances. And crucially, it noted, such easy energy reductions—what environmentalists call "low hanging fruit"—would dramatically lower the carbon dioxide emissions that are heating up the planet. And China could certainly use some of that, with temperatures breaking records and another summer of extreme weather.

Incentives for change

Though greenhouse gases have not always been a priority for China’s leaders, the rhetoric is getting stronger. "More work on energy conservation and emissions reduction is urgently required to deal with global climate change," premier Wen Jiabao said recently. No doubt, highly-polluting industries, like coal and concrete factories, play a significant role. But as the Ministry of Construction also noted, the building sector is the country’s easiest target for reduction and conservation. If China can make all of today’s big buildings more energy efficient, the ministry concluded, the country could reduce its coal use by 135 million tonnes a year.

There are of course other reasons for China to turn its grey buildings green; there is a considerable monetary incentive. As oil supplies become harder to reach as half of the country’s energy goes into buildings, up from 10% in the 1970s, green design is no longer just a nice or cool thing to do; it’s becoming an economic necessity.

That’s not just the thinking of Qiu or environmental minister Pan Yue; one of China’s biggest fans of green building is Hu Jintao. The president with a degree in water conservancy engineering from Tsinghua University can often be heard extolling the virtues of energy efficiency, two elements at the centre of the current Five Year Plan and its vision of sustainable development and creating a "harmonious society." Recent Party meetings have seen Hu and Wen waxing on the possibilities of using price, tax and other financial measures to curb waste and promote energy saving in construction.

Bricks and mortar

The real “elephant in the room”, however,  is quite how all the talk on sustainability will turn into a bricks-and-mortar reality. Eyeing the millions who will pour into China’s cities in the next decade, the Construction Ministry has ordered new buildings to be 50% more efficient by 2010 than they were in 2005, and has announced stricter zoning laws for government buildings and energy intensive buildings. But last year, as construction continued at a feverish pace, the country lowered its energy consumption per unit of gross domestic product only by 1.2%, well short of its 4% a year target.

If the government’s green intent is clear, its success in greening the fast-growing property market has not been. "China got a late start in green architecture, and with rapid urbanisation at the beginning, and inadequate theory behind it, there is still a low level of awareness and an imperfect development of the market mechanisms," says professor Kai Yan, vice chairman of the China Real Estate and Housing Research Association. While 95% of buildings approved for construction last year met the government’s various efficiency standards, deputy minister Qiu conceded that over 80% of the finished buildings—covering some 2 billion square metres in area—ignored them outright.

"In China there is an openness to new ideas and an increasing will for change, but this may take some time to translate into legislation and even longer for developers genuinely to respond to the challenge," says Nick Thompson, lead partner at architectural Cole Thompson Anders, who has worked on green projects in China. "There is a great growth of development in Chinese cities but this is often targeted at the top end of the market, sometimes requires car-borne transport to make it work, and rarely addresses environmental performance in a serious way."

Indeed, despite their grey, hulking visage, some of Beijing’s biggest properties seem to be bathed in a swash of green. Along with amenities like fitness centres and cinemas, billboard ads for some of Beijing’s newest buildings boast their environmental standards, with pastoral images and names to match. But as a recent report by property manager Jones Lange Lasalle found, only a handful of buildings in Beijing and Shanghai actually meet basic sustainability standards. Even the National Stadium, which promises to be eco-friendly, has been criticised for its excessive use of steel; others have called Dongtan, the lavish eco-city rising from scratch near Shanghai, more of a “greenwash” than a green win. The Ministry of Construction was so frustrated by the abuse of the word "green" that until this year, officials there would only speak of "sustainable" buildings.

Whatever the word, building experts are now struggling to define it. Kai’s real estate association formed China’s first Green Building Council (CGBC) in March, which is currently working on adapting the US LEED green building standard for Chinese builders. Beijing’s first green building, a government office called ACCORD21, is still its only LEED-certified building (though a few more residences are on the way). While the government has already designed its green building standard and developers like Vanke boast in-house policies, LEED, many agree, represents a true green building landmark for China. It’s more comprehensive, easier to understand, and perhaps most importantly, globally recognised.

"For an international company especially, having a global standard is important," says Rob Watson, a sustainable building expert and Chairman of consultant group American Sinotech. "Soon people will realise these are better buildings or they perform better
economically; they’ll think, ‘We better get on the bandwagon or we’ll lose to our competitors.’ And with that, the costs will come down."

The initial added costs of green building—about 5% more than a regular building—are easily offset by long-term energy savings, and just as crucial are the benefits to be gained from a huge potential green building market. While China may be set to invest 1.5 trillion yuan (US$194 billion) in green upgrades by 2020, Watson estimates the market for efficient buildings and upgrades will be worth over US$55 billion by 2012. In Watson’s view, it is the market, not the government, which can best propel green building in China. Considering that’s where the money is—and quite how much money there is to be made—it’s an idea that makes sense.

The bigger picture

One crucial element, undoubtedly, will be the buildings of multinational companies. Flush with investment cash and held to international quality standards, foreign corporations will not only burnish their image in China by investing in green: they will set a strong example of corporate responsibility, educate the “man-on-the-street” and reduce the cost of going green.

In a market like China’s, such companies could be for green building what the space race was to the digital age. "In the U.S., it was the military and businesses that had the money to invest in cutting edge technologies, and later, consumers reaped the benefits," says Van Yang, a sustainability researcher who was part of the US Green Building Council’s delegation during its recent trip to Beijing. "I think the same thing is going to have to happen in China." Still, the government can and should play a significant role by continuing to push green in its own buildings, supporting university research and creating financial incentives for private developers. "There needs to be a mechanism that disperses the rising costs among customers/real estate developers and the government," Beijing developer Pan Shiyi noted at a recent building conference, referring to costly green building materials and technologies.

One solution would be to answer the country’s—and the world’s—call for green building by producing the materials at home. It’s true that China boasts the world’s highest production of solar water heaters, and some of its richest entrepreneurs have made their money in wind and solar technologies. But its green materials industry still pales next to that of Germany, Europe, Finland and Japan.

But as important as green materials are, sustainability in China’s buildings will depend largely on the bigger picture: how cities are designed, how green technologies fit together, and how the buildings improve not only the environment, but also the livelihood of the humans inside them. And on a big scale, little steps really can matter. Forgoing home refurnishing by furnishing right the first time could save 30 billion yuan (around US$4 billion) a year, the government says.

It’s a lesson that holds for China as a whole. As it builds its big buildings and cities from scratch, the country must think green at the start. Later renovations may come too late.

Alex Pasternack, a freelance writer based in Beijing, is a correspondent for green lifestyle website

Homepage photo by Peter Morgan via Flickr