The most frightening thing is that, in the future, half of China’s urban population will be in cities like this. If they all copy Beijing, our low-carbon cities are done for.
LJ: When everyone is trying to create low-carbon cities, why are they instead turning out to be high-carbon?
JK: Because nobody knows what a low-carbon city actually looks like, so most are just using their imagination. A lot of researchers don’t even understand the idea.
LJ: Is it really the case that China doesn’t have a single low-carbon city?
JK: No, it does have one— [in Liaoning province] is planning to become a complete low-carbon city. My colleagues and I are helping in the design, from overall industrial makeup to buildings, transport, land use and lifestyles. The first aim is to have a good ratio of pavements and bike lanes to roads, with the best parking spots given to buses and bikes.
There is also a targeted rate of use of public transport and mandated percentage of dedicated bus lanes and bus speeds. Building a subway is just a matter of freeing up local-government finance, it’s not very hard. There’s also going to be an environmentally-friendly taxi fleet— Shenyang has an automobile manufacturing industry, so it can do that. It is also adopting higher energy-efficiency standards. For example, vehicles sold in Shenyang need to be more energy-saving than those sold elsewhere in China. And buildings need to meet energy-saving rates of 75 percent, the highest standard nationally.
LJ: Does the government have sufficient funds for low-carbon projects like this?
JK: We’ve worked out the costs for Shenyang – what the government will have to pay for and what others will cover. For example, property developers will cover the costs of meeting the 75% energy-saving standard, while other expenses such as transportation development can be met by the state. Government income is more than 50 billion yuan (US$7.5 billion) a year, so it can afford to use more than one billion of that on low-carbon cities.
LJ: Why is Shenyang so active in this field? What’s the motive?
JK: Two members of the Central Political Bureau’s used to work in Liaoning, and they want to see Shenyang as a successful trial. One of those leaders once visited Japan, where he was very impressed by their low-carbon cities, so he requested that Shenyang become a low-carbon city.
LJ: And besides requests from superiors, is there any other motive? Many officials are at least saying they want to build low-carbon cities.
JK: Local officials compete on GDP growth – if your economy grows 12%, I need to reach 13% and beat you. That’s the thinking and they wear each other ragged. But China’s GDP has been and there’s not that much growth potential left. For example, where will Beijing’s economic growth come from once [one of China’s largest steel companies] has relocated? If you can’t compete, change the game – come up with new standards, like “livable cities” or “low-carbon cities”. And these local officials are smart. They want to keep up with global trends and central-government targets.
LJ: Will cities that take low-carbon choices, such as limiting energy-intensive industries, lose economic competitiveness?
JK: For cities such as Shenyang, it will actually increase competitiveness and make them money. Shenyang is a manufacturing hub and its precision machinery for example is—at the demand of central government—extremely energy efficient and very competitive. The world’s 28 key low-carbon technologies, once they go into production, will need to be manufactured. And Shenyang has a strong advantage here.