Change the record

Atkins | 10 Dec 2007 | Comments

China is reputed to be one of the largest emitters of CO2 on the planet. It plans to build a coal-fired power station every week for the next decade. Breakneck economic growth over the Past two decades has left cities shrouded in smog. So what is China doing right for the environment?

The charge sheet against the world’s most populous country is impressive – a fact that even its own government cannot deny. But a barrister defending China’s environmental record could offer a few surprising facts. By 2020, for example, China will be the largest developer of wind energy in the world, according to the Global Wind Energy Council.

Recent renewable energy legislation by the State Electricity Regulatory Commission (SERC) requires power companies to purchase the maximum amount of “green”, renewable electricity available in their coverage areas. SERC is also now monitoring power companies to ensure that targets are met.

In addition, Atkins has designed the masterplan for Yixing in eastern China, near Shanghai. The new settlement is an exemplar of sustainable development lying on the edge of ecologically sensitive Lake Tai.

The People’s Republic is also the first to build one of a new breed of cleaner, more efficient nuclear reactors, and the first to deploy UK-developed technology that significantly cuts CO2 emissions from coal-fired stations.

In July 2007, the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) suspended the approval of all new industrial projects in 13 cities and industrial parks along the Hai, Huai, Yangtze, and Yellow rivers, all of which are suffering severe pollution levels.

Despite its ongoing use of polluting power sources and unstoppable growth, in some ways, China is striving for a sustainable future.

Having had a presence in China for over 30 years, Atkins is well aware of the changes under way. Sustainability has been rising on the agenda in recent projects, such as the Tianjin Economic and Technological Development Area (TEDA) Towers, located in Tianjin, mainland China’s third largest city.

“More than 600 million people are slated to move to China’s urban areas by 2030, so tackling sustainability at the urban scale is essential for both China and the rest of the world. Atkins is well placed to take the lead in this process,” explains Samson Sin, managing director of Atkins in China.

Green roots

China’s environmental challenges are nothing new. It was the world’s largest economy for 1,400 of the last 2,000 years and has struggled with its environment through most of it. As recently as 1998, floods along the Yangtze killed more than 2,000 people, destroyed 2.9 million houses and ruined more than nine million hectares of crops.

According to Sir Crispin Tickell – a British diplomat and academic, with strong ties to China’s environmental efforts – the conflict between resource depletion and economic growth runs throughout the country’s history.

“Today, north-west China is becoming increasingly dry, with regular dust storms,” he says. “The storms are so large that particles are ending up in Hawaii. There are even reports of dust from China arriving on the American west coast.”

The problems were brought home following a report commissioned by the government and the World Bank in 2003 to estimate how much environmental air and water pollution costs the country. The report (The Cost of Pollution in China – Economic Estimates of Physical Damage), published early in 2007, estimated that the combined health and non-health cost to China’s economy would be around $100bn a year (or about 5.8 per cent of its GDP).

It also carried dire warnings on the effects of air pollution in large cities and the health implications of water pollution. Water scarcity, the report said, could cost around a further one per cent of GDP.

As it edges once again toward regaining that historic position, there are welcome signs that Chinese governmental policy will learn from past experience.

Premier Wen Jiabao has created a strategy to tackle the problems, called the “Three Transformations”. He aims to marry economics and environmental concerns by putting growth and protection of the environment on an equal basis, and intends to use administrative, legal and market mechanisms to protect the environment.

As a result, in its 11th Five Year Plan (2006-2010), China made environmental protection its highest priority. The plan calls for a “resource-saving society” and sets targets to reduce energy consumption per yuan of GDP by 20 per cent and meet 10 per cent of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2020. It also pledged to reduce total discharge of major pollutants by 10 per cent by 2010.

The problem is the tension between central government and the municipalities, where regional authorities are under pressure from local populations to deliver housing and social facilities quickly and cheaply. Central government’s decrees are not always translated into action on the ground.

“There are also problems within the government, where ministries have very different interests and priorities,” says Sir Crispin. “The main body responsible for the environment, the State Environment Protection Agency, has yet to receive cabinet rank, but its work gets full support from the Premier. It is a familiar argument in government about where to put priorities, whether conservation of the environment or economic growth.”

Raising the bar

The irony is that a country much derided for its bureaucracy is using the very same to overcome obstacles that threaten to stall its environmental aspirations. By changing the country’s building and environmental regulations, developers are more likely to incorporate changes to their working practices.

In this, the Chinese government is collaborating with the British Standards Institution (BSI), which has worked with the government on its standards regime for many years.

David Bell, head of International Affairs at BSI, says incorporating standardisation into China’s five-year plan is a breakthrough: “Ten years ago, China wasn’t concerned with international standardisation. Now, they’ve set a target to lead 10 per cent of the committees developing international standards in ISO – BSI runs around 13 per cent.”

New legislation is also coming through on recycling and energy efficiency, which will lead to a further demand for new standards, he adds.

Faithful+Gould has seized the opportunity posed by the changing regulatory regime. A team, led by Ian Butterss, is incorporating sustainability requirements into a management tool that offers clients a range of sustainability options based on cost and risk. The software and engagement process produces a range of sustainability options that could be applied to a potential development. Key project decision makers score each option. Following a workshop, the list of options is whittled down from 60 to 10 priority measures. Cost and risk are then evaluated before a decision is taken on how to proceed.

“We have applied the process to a major retail store in Shanghai. Our tool prioritised a list of over 60 sustainability options according to environmental benefit, cost and risk. The project manager then chose to implement 23 of the most suitable sustainability measures,” Butterss explains.

Barry Piper, Faithful+Gould’s director based in Shanghai, believes building regulations are becoming stricter in China: “The Chinese government’s research into the costs of pollution, similar to the UK’s Stern report, led to a number of changes. People are now far more aware of the issues and care more about the environmental changes taking place. The UK’s regulations are more strict than China’s in terms of the building materials that are used in construction. China is more focused on energy conservation than CO2 emissions.”

Piper, who has been based in China for almost 12 years, also sees signs that the need for change is being accepted: “We find that younger graduates are expressing more interest and involvement in climate change issues. China is in a good position to take the lead.”

“The importance of sustainability is gaining awareness among employees,” agrees Rebecca Zhou, HR director with Atkins in China. “More and more employees would now consider sustainability to be an important element for them to join and stay with this company, for example. They all want to take part in the process where we can better use the limited natural resources in China to build a great nation.

“These issues are becoming increasingly important to potential new recruits as well, particularly for those employees with international exposure and experience in contemporary design and planning concepts.” As Zhou points out, natural resources are limited in China and demand for energy is increasing daily – “The need for sustainable designs and solutions represents genuine demand in China, not a slogan.”

Piper cites the bullet train running between Beijing and Shanghai as an example of the kind of project that is attracting the attention of the public, as well as China’s willingness to change quickly.

“It is easier to apply new developments in technology in China than in the UK. In the UK, it would take 10 years or so to get approval for a Maglev train. With the right backing, approvals can be very fast in China.”

This willingness and ability to take on new technologies is seen in many different areas, from the exponential growth in its renewables sector to its recent shift toward importing a higher quality coal.

For veteran China watcher Sir Crispin Tickell, the omens are good: “Overall, I am optimistic about the human intellect: we can understand these problems. However I am pessimistic regarding our ability to act. I would say that the Chinese Premier is more aware of the issues than comparable people in the West.”

Towering ambition

The TEDA Towers, designed by Atkins in China, will comprise three mixed office, residential, commercial and hotel towers. The iconic design features stacks of slightly rotated eight-storey blocks topped by glass. They will also include a geothermal heating/cooling system, a series of winter gardens that “spirals” up the tower and vertical wind-powered turbines for electricity generation. The main tower will reach 356m and will be one of China’s tallest buildings when completed in 2009.

Photo: Agnieszka Bojczuk

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