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Haunted by Success

A country not known for sustainable approaches to growth takes important steps in the building industry to respond to their worsening environmental problems.


By Robert Watson

Although industry is China’s current environmental bad guy, buildings are rapidly catching up. Every year, China erects over 20 billion square feet of floor area (about two New York Cities’ worth)—about 60 percent of which is residential, 30 percent commercial, and 10 percent industrial/warehouse. Most residential construction consists of high-rise apartments, with less than 1 percent creating Western-style detached “villas.”

The top of highrise buildings above the fog in Wenling, east China’s Zhejiang province.
Photo © AFP/Getty Images
The top of highrise buildings above the fog in Wenling, east China’s Zhejiang province.
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Each year, China’s building boom covers nearly 4,000 square miles—the size of the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined—with concrete and asphalt. Much of this land—almost 800 square miles—is productive farmland, a resource that China can ill afford to squander. Increasing hardscape is also a serious problem because China gets 70 percent of its drinking water and 40 percent of its agricultural water supply from underground. China’s buildings consume over 40 percent of its total energy with 24 to 26 percent going to operations. In large urban areas, more than half of peak demand comes from air-conditioning and lighting, which is driving the construction of one new large coal-fired power plant every 10 days, though these plants tend to be more efficient than the ones currently being built in the U.S. Another 16 to 18 percent of China’s total energy is embodied in building materials, which are mostly steel and concrete. The quality of these materials varies, so Chinese buildings tend to be over-engineered compared to buildings in the West.

Senior Chinese officials, led by Qiu Baoxing, vice minister of China’s Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (MOHURD, formerly the Ministry of Construction), have recognized the importance of green buildings as an environmental strategy and have set several policy processes in motion. The country’s 11th and 12th five-year plans have made “new development models,” central government-speak for green buildings, and “low-carbon economy,” key focuses for the next 10 years, making these issues a top priority for potential recipients to receive billions of dollars in support and incentives.

Regulatory Approaches: Between 1999 and 2003, MOHURD adopted three regional energy-saving standards for residential buildings—currently under consolidation—and a national commercial building standard. These standards require a minimum 50 percent improvement in energy efficiency compared with 1980s practices, which is roughly the energy performance equivalent to ASHRAE 90.1-1999. For “Tier 1” cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou (Canton), and Chongqing, the requirement is that new buildings reduce energy consumption by 65 percent, about the efficiency level of ASHRAE 90.1-2007.

Implementation and enforcement of these standards is improving. The prevalent attitude of “heaven is high and the emperor is far away” is giving way to more regular enforcement with heavy fines being levied for non-compliance. There is now the threat that MOHURD might revoke a developer’s license for serial non-compliance.

Market/Voluntary Programs: Even “voluntary” programs are government-driven in China. At the end of 2007, MOHURD began offering “Three Star,” a green-building label that is based on their 2006 Evaluation Standard for Green Building (GB/T 50378-2006). March 2008 saw the official launch of the Chinese Society for Urban Studies Green Building and Conservation Professional Committee (the China Green Building Council) consisting of a core group of over 100 green-building experts, with local branches in over a dozen cities. China’s Council on Human Settlements has a “human settlement ecological standard” and a demonstration program with 60 “golden neighborhood” projects around China.

Taiwan also has its own green-building rating system, EEWH (for Ecology, Energy saving, Waste reduction, and Health), and the British program, BREEAM, was adapted in Hong Kong as HK-BEAM. (See “It Isn’t Easy Grading Green,”)

Despite these alternatives, LEED currently dominates the green-building labeling market, with almost 300 million square feet in the pipeline. In top urban building markets, green is also defining Class A office spaces—over 60 percent of the new floor area in the Beijing and Shanghai Central Business Districts is in the LEED program.

Professional and public awareness of green is growing: Green-building conferences are pretty much a weekly occurrence now, and there are a growing number of green-building resources online in China. There are also “do-think” tanks, such as JUCCCE (Joint US-China Cooperation on Clean Energy www.juccce.com), which is implementing innovative projects such as training China’s mayors on green development.

In March 2010, China’s top policy advisory body placed “low-carbon economy” at the top of its entire policy agenda. Green technology and green buildings are key mechanisms being promoted by China’s leadership to address climate pollution and other environmental challenges there. At last year’s Green and Intelligent Building Congress, Minister Qiu Baoxing said, “We need to mobilize all social forces, all the forces in our society, not just rely on our ministry,” and it appears that they are well on the way to accomplishing this goal.

Robert Watson is CEO and chief scientist of EcoTech International, which implements cleantech solutions to integrate sustainability over the life of buildings, and executive editor of GreenerBuildings.com. Mr. Watson was the founding chairman of USGBC’s LEED system and has worked for over 15 years to promote green buildings in China.

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This article appeared in the May 2010 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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