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Qiu Baoxing: Carbon Reduction the New Indicator for City Competition in 14th Five Year Plan

Date: 2021-05-28
“During the 14th five-year period, Chinese cities will compete not only on economic performance, but also carbon reduction. Both GDP and carbon figures will matter,” according to Qiu Baoxing, former Minister for Housing and Urban-Rural Development, former Counsellor of the State Council and now President of the Chinese Society for Urban Studies, at the 18th edition of Blue Chip Real Estate held by eeo.com.cn.

Mr. Qiu believes making cities the basic unit in carbon management is important for China. They account for 75% of all the human GHG emissions; their administration is designed to cover villages and fields, which is convenient for the planning of renewable energy bases and carbon sinks; and this encourages a double-track competition on carbon as well as economic indicators.

To realize its “3060” target, China needs to draw up carbon reduction roadmaps and plans of action for each city, covering the five areas of carbon sink, construction, transport, municipal services, and manufacturing.

Below is a transcript of Qiu’s remarks at the event.

China has proposed an important 3060 target. How do we get there? President Xi Jinping said on 30 April that CPC organs at various levels should design clear timelines, roadmaps, and plans of actions. If this is not done properly at the level of cities, the target may well be missed.

Why is it so urgent to reach 3060? The concept of ecological footprint was created by a Canadian ecologist in the 1970s. For years, China has been the world’s top GHG emitter, leading the world in carbon dioxide. Our total emissions are the combined sum of the US and the EU, which stand at the second and third place. The international pressure on China is enormous. Carbon emissions reduction is at the heart of China’s strategy to transition towards an ecological civilization.

Carbon emissions can peak either naturally or with government interventions. Most of the 54 countries that have peaked naturally are in the developed world, as they are over 70% urbanized; their industrialization and IT application is at an advanced stage; and their populations are older. These are the conditions that naturally lead to carbon emissions peaking. The earliest natural peaking happened in 1974. The UK has said it would be carbon neutral by 2050, which means it will be about 70 years for the country to go from peaking to neutral. But China only has 30 years between its goal of peaking in 2030 and carbon neutrality in 2060. So governments at all levels must have roadmaps and all blue chip companies must act.

The United Nations adopts a principle of common but differentiated responsibilities; because carbon dioxide as highly stable molecules can stay in the atmosphere for hundreds of years after emission. Over the past 300 years of industrialization, the US and EU as the top two advanced economies contributed 65% to 70% of the carbon dioxide built up in the air. The other 30% to 35% came from China and other developing countries. But China’s emissions are growing fast. Based on rough calculations, China’s total emissions is likely to overtake that of the EU and US in 30 to 35 years. When the time comes, the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities will not be applicable to China. Time is not on our side.

Why is it important to look at cities, rather than specific sectors, such as power and transportation, in reducing emissions?

First of all, cities are the leading sources of human emissions. They account for 75% of the total human GHG emissions, according to findings of the UN. Second, unlike the administrative jurisdiction layout in the West, Chinese city governments have powers over villages, which manages mountains, water bodies, forests, and fields. Governments, therefore, are able to plan for the development of renewable energy and carbon sink bases. Third, Chinese cities need to transit towards a double-track competition, one that does not focus on GDP alone, as was the case in the past 40 years, but on both GDP and carbon reduction. There is no need to create a whole new index of green GDP. The cities in the Yangtze River Delta are already working on their emissions targets.

With cities in the driving seat, they can design their own roadmaps and plans of action. When we evaluate their roadmaps for peaking and carbon neutrality, we may look at such indicators as security resilience, cost effectiveness, technological reliability (which is already increasing), compatibility between the grey system and the green one, and import substitution.

As China makes the transition, problems will appear. For example, the Global Protocol for Community-Scale Greenhouse Gas Emissions includes some imperfections that affect its applicability in China. The protocol does not have well defined sources of stationary energy. It does not distinguish between supply and consumption in energy use or corporate and individual responsibility in reduction, which should have been treated differently for their unique roles. Moreover, buildings will not only consume but also produce energy as technology advances, which is not considered in the protocol. Therefore, China may face problems if this approach is adopted exclusively.

Is there a better way to account for China’s GHG emissions? I believe five sectors should be targeted in evaluating urban carbon neutrality. They are agriculture and rural areas, construction, transport, waste disposal (municipal services), and industry. Cities vary in their industrial mix or energy consumption in manufacturing, with some more heavily invested in industry and some in tourism and services. For this reason, we could set aside the industrial sector for a while before peaking when we are drawing up the rules of competition for urban carbon neutrality. Emissions from the other four sectors—agriculture and rural areas, construction, transport, and municipal services—are primarily determined by the commitment of the local government and community. They have unified standards in emissions quantification and monitoring. Therefore, per capital carbon emissions in these four areas will be a more suitable indicator for inter-city comparisons.

The various emissions reduction technologies and reform measures are quite different in impact and reliability. Those with a good impact and cost effectiveness are generally less reliable. Solar and wind power programs are competitive in both reduction impact and reliability; hydrogen is highly unreliable; CCUS is less ideal in terms of impact and reliability; nuclear fusion has a strong impact, but with equally high risks and uncertainties. It may take another 50 years for nuclear fusion to be considered as an option.

There are two challenges to realizing carbon neutrality: the old industrial models and resistance from interest groups formed over the past 40 years. Cities will be more resilient to these challenges when actions are taken by both governments and sectors. Digital technologies may also be used to reduce emissions; data is an energy-efficient asset helpful for the monitoring, disclosure and accounting of emissions in cities. The combination of multiple innovations may also help cities in different climatic zones to produce a combined reduction effect.

In terms of carbon sink, China proposed the goal of increasing its forestry by 40 million hectares in 2020 from the 2005 level, which means a total storage increase of 1.3 billion cubic meters or less than 100 million cubic meters per year. Calculations show the capture capacity of forests in Guangdong is 1.2 tons and in places in northern China, such as He’nan, 0.6 ton. Forests can take no more than 10% of total emissions. Oceans are a much better choice. The same unit area of oceans suck up carbon 10 times that of forests and 200 times that of grasslands, due to the large amounts of crustaceans which are in effect calcium carbonate with a good capacity for carbon storage.

In Beijing, each mu of solar energy panels equal the performance of 15.4 mu of forests. Solar power plants produce electricity at a cost of 0.3 RMB per kilowatt-hour (kWh) while households pay 0.5 RMB per kWh and industries 0.7 RMB. If solar power is produced on a large scale, profits will be good enough.

Tree-planting in cities can reduce emissions—but not without problems. For example, the relocation of old trees, long-distance transport of seedlings, and unprofessional planting. Planting trees in places with less than 500 mm of annual precipitation is in fact carbon-intensive, as much effort will be made to water these trees. The carbon emissions produced in this process tend to outweigh the captured.

Solar energy is very effective. Besides natural carbon sequestration, it can also reduce emissions in other ways. On the plateaus where the night is much colder than the day, morning dews on the panels can be a source of water for the sandy land. These panels will not only be able to produce electricity, but also improve its host environment, enrich life and mitigate desertification.

According to the IEA’s Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction, buildings account for 35% to 38% of the total carbon consumption in their operation. In China, carbon emissions by construction happen mainly during the use of buildings and the production of construction materials. Construction sites only take up a very small percentage. Even with the same construction materials, emissions may still be different. For example, shipping marbles all the way from Italy to China is much more carbon-intensive than sourcing them locally in Beijing’s Fangshan. So the operation of buildings is not the only source of emission. The whole life cycle should be evaluated.

To reduce emissions by building and construction in China, two factors must be considered. First, public buildings, although not a big part of the total floor space, account for a large share of carbon emissions. Their per unit emissions double that of Japan. In northern China, heating for one square meter produces on average 36 kg of carbon dioxide. Centralized heating in the south, such as in Wuhan and Chengdu, is carbon-intensive. Residential buildings in China only emit one-fifth carbon of those in the US, because of the prevalent use of cabinet type air conditioners. In the US, residential buildings are big emitters because their per capita floor space is twice that of China and they prefer the central air conditioning system and dryers.

Green buildings are also climate-adaptive. Their energy system and maintenance structure can be adjusted as weather changes so that the energy consumption model of the building adapts to different conditions. It must be noted that buildings can reduce emissions by making good use of its internal “micro-energy” system. When wind and solar power is designed as an integral part of a building, the potential energy of a descending lift and city biomass can be used to produce electricity; the distributed energy resources in a community and stored electricity in vehicles can become a micro-energy system. Electricity can be sold to the power grid in times of surpluses and bought from the grid and stored in electric vehicles where there are shortages.

Repeated cycling of grey water is also a great way to reduce emissions in the process of water supply. Distributed waste water treatment facilitates and in-house collection system use and recycle grey water efficiently. Mixed burning of coal and ammonia is good for increasing power supply resilience and reducing emissions. Japanese media has reported that ammonia fuel is key to Japan’s goal of zero carbon dioxide emissions in 2050.

Green areas in cities can add to overall reductions. They may be insignificant in grabbing carbon; but if well distributed, they can produce an indirect yet significant impact as they can cool down the cities and make air conditioning less needed, resulting in a behavioral change for reduction. Therefore, plants and landscaping is very important for the design of future buildings.