Sustainable Cities: Past, Present, Future

shanghai greening

Eurozine‘s editor Almantas Samalavicius recently interviewed me on the evolution of sustainable cities. A wide-ranging topic, we covered everything from my 2007 book, How Green is Your City? The SustainLane US City Rankings, to other past work with the United Nations, national administrations and cities of the United States, China, and South Korea, to the emergence of the sharing economy, net zero buildings and zero-car districts. What came to light by looking back is that the concept and actuality of sustainable cities have come a long way.

Where our cities will go, nobody knows and that’s what makes this emerging field so exciting. All we know for sure is that much of the action on climate change and resilience have been taking place in cities around the world. In the expansive interview, we touch upon China’s attempt to manage its 663 largest cities using sustainability Key Performance Indicators software (that I helped Lawrence Berkeley National Labs and China’s Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development devise), London’s rewilding of the Upper Lea Valley, the bikesharing system of Paris, West Coast US urban fruit exchanges and Brooklyn’s Maker movement.

Twenty years ago, I could have never foreseen the seemingly limitless growth of urban sustainability-focused resources (including Sustainable Cities Collective!). With the exploding interest in the area by practitioners, educational and research institutes, business, government at all levels, and neighborhood activists, we are on the cusp of an amazing epoch in human and biological history.

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My TEDx Talk: Collective Intelligence for Sustainable Cities

Warren Karlenzig at TEDx Mission

TEDx Mission recently invited me to speak at their San Francisco event on how cities are using collective intelligence approaches to address climate change and climate change adaptation. Crowdsourcing and savvy planning are producing healthier quality of life and more resilient urban economies.
The talk drew upon my experience with Common Current, which is working with governments, the private sector and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) globally on urban sustainability master planning, policy and technology around energy, water, infrastructure, mobility, land use and economic issues.
An underlying premise is that as we increasingly become an urban planet, diverse cities will provide the key to sustainability innovations. Others, such as Asian Development Bank’s Guanghua Wan and UCLA’s Matthew Kahn in a report released last week (pdf), “Key Indicators for the Pacific (2012)“, have made similar observations.
Common Current is now helping Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory design indicators software for China’s Ministry of Urban Rural Development so China can better manage its 654 cities as “Low Carbon Ecocities.” China has been leading the trend toward urbanization, going from approximately 20 percent urbanites in 1980, to 53 percent now, to an estimated 70 percent by 2030. In our lifetimes, China has already experienced the fastest and largest mass migration of humans in the history of Earth.
Within this dynamic context, Common Current collaborates extensively with the United Nations, China, South Korea, Japan and the United States, as well as individual cities and communities, on green urban development policy and projects.
As you will see in the TEDx talk, effective strategy and management by city leaders is critical, but bottom-up approaches are also having surprisingly dramatic and replicable impacts that address climate change and resilience.
Climate change has been shown to be linked to prolonged drought, more frequent and damaging heat waves, record number of high temperatures (a 2-to-1 ratio over record lows in US over past decade), wildfires, record urban flooding, record urban rainfall amounts and record deadly superstorms, including violent tornadoes.
Nonetheless, on every inhabited continent, legions of talented and dedicated urban citizens (yes, suburbanites are included) are acting to slow climate change and protect us from its worst impacts through collective crowdsourcing, large-scale citizen participation and social media.
As you will see in the TEDx talk, green urbanization utilizing collective intelligence will assist a needed turnaround from our current plight. Instead of needlessly facing the brink of a volatile future completely unprepared, we are beginning to experience how the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its individual parts.

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UN’s Shanghai Manual Launches to Guide Urban Futures


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A powerful triumvirate,
the United Nations, Bureau International Des
Expositions
and the mayor of Shanghai, released this week the Shanghai Manual:A Guide for Sustainable Urban Development in the 21st Century.This timely (and free!) manual is
aimed at helping leaders of the world’s cities use integrated urban
planning, management, financing and technology to green their
economies and build climate and economic resilience.

“The Shanghai Manual details
the experience and practices of cities across the world in addressing common
challenges and achieving harmonious development…and is therefore of great
theoretical and practical value,” Shanghai Mayor Han Zheng said at
Monday’s launch, according to the Shanghai Daily.

Aimed at a
target readership of mayors and executive leaders of developing nation cities,
the bilingual (English and Chinese) Shanghai
Manual
is the basis for capacity building and training being rolled out in Asia next week by the United Nations. City leaders representing 12 Asian nations will attend the United Nations Center for Regional Development in
Nagoya, Japan, where UN officials and I will lead urban sustainability training
for leaders ranging from Colombo, Sri Lanka, to Karachi, Pakistan,
to Makati (Manila), Philippines. In addition smaller cities including Chiang Mai, Thailand are participating.

Continue reading

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What’s an Ecocity and Why Should We Care?

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“Ecocity” is a popular designation for dozens
of global urban centers. Indeed the 9th Ecocity World Summit next week in Montreal,
Canada will be packed with city officials, planners, activists, educators, and
corporations from 75 nations, as well as the United Nations–all trying to plan how the city can
be designed and conducted more in harmony with ecosystems, culture and the biosphere.

The summit will also present a scheme to assess ecocities on
defined standards and indicators. Seeing that international standards for overall
sustainability at the city level do not yet exist, how can ecocities take
things to the next level and collectively push forward urban sustainability
performance across borders, languages, cultures and local conditions?

Cities are where sustainability meets true systems approaches
and economic need: they’ll go from harboring more than half of the planet’s
people to about 70 percent of humanity by 2050.
The Earth is undergoing the greatest mass migration in its history as hundreds
of millions of rural residents of China move to its booming cities.

Some of the largest ecocity projects include Tianjin, China (pictured above);
Waitakere, New Zealand (208,000 pop.) was self-designated as an ecocity before
it was absorbed by neighboring Auckland
in 2010.

A host of other
cities in China including Changchun, Rizhao and Tangshan (“Caofeidian International Eco-city”are modeled as eco-cities, while India is
also planning development of several eco cities along its new Delhi-Mumbai
transportation and industrial corridor
. Japan, which has been
helping India plan its largest ecocity, is also sponsoring development or retrofitting of numerous ecocities or “eco towns.”

The term “ecocity” was first used by Richard Register in
1987: Register went on to found in 1992 Ecocity Builders, a non-profit based in Oakland, California. (Disclosure: my consultancy Common
Current just finished helping Ecocity Builders
and its international advisors develop standards and indicators for ecocities,
called the International Ecocity Framework and Standards, or IEFS.)

Ecocity Builders’ Register, Executive Director Kirstin
Miller, Ecological Footprint co-creator Bill Rees and other participants will be addressing the Montreal Ecocity
Conference to present the IEFS to participants and partner cities. Four Early
Partner Cities (EPCs) for the IEFS–Vancouver and Montreal, Canada; Curitiba, Brazil and Kirtipur, Nepal–will also participate.
These cities or communities are already gathering information and data for the
IEFS in order to provide initial feedback on the standard and indicator development
process.

The IEFS consists of 15 system “conditions” or
categories. Cities will eventually be
analyzed and measured based on the performance of these components, which have
an integral relationship to the city’s bioregions (bioregional mapping will
become a key IEFS activity). The 15 IEFS categories include:

·        
Access by Proximity: Walkable access from housing to basic urban services and transit access
to close-by employment options.

·        
Clean Air: Air quality conducive to good health within
buildings, the city’s air shed, and the atmosphere.

·        
Healthy Soil: Soils meet
their ranges of healthy ecosystem functions as appropriate to their types and
environments; fertility is maintained or improved.

·        
Clean and Safe Water:
Access to clean, safe, affordable water; the city’s water sources, waterways
and water bodies are healthy and function without negative impact to
ecosystems. Water is primarily sourced from within the bioregion.

·        
Responsible Resources/
Materials
: Renewable and non-renewable resources are sourced, allocated,
managed and recycled responsibly and equitably, without adversely affecting
human health or the resilience of ecosystems.

·        
Clean and Renewable
Energy
: The city’s energy needs are provided for, and extracted, generated and
consumed, without significant negative impact to ecosystems or to short- or
long-term human health and do not exacerbate climate change. Energy consumed is
primarily generated within the local bioregion.

·        
Healthy and Accessible
Food
: Nutritious food is accessible and affordable to all residents and is
grown, manufactured and distributed by processes which maintain the healthy
function of ecosystems and do not exacerbate climate change. Food consumed is
primarily grown within the local bioregion.

·        
Healthy Biodiversity: The
city sustains the biodiversity of local, bioregional and global ecosystems
including species diversity, ecosystem diversity and genetic diversity; it
restores natural habitat and biodiversity by its policy and physical actions.

·        
Earth’s Carrying
Capacity:
The city keeps its demand on ecosystems within the limits of the
Earth’s bio-capacity, converting resources restoratively and supporting
regional ecological integrity.

·        
Ecological Integrity: The
city maintains essential linkages within and between ecosystems and provides
contiguous habitat areas and ecological corridors throughout the city.

·        
Healthy Culture: The city
facilitates cultural activities that strengthen eco-literacy, patterns of human
knowledge and creative expression, and develop symbolic thought and social
learning.

·        
Community Capacity
Building
: The city supports full and equitable community participation in
decision making processes and provides legal, physical and organizational
support for neighborhoods, community organizations, institutions and agencies.

·        
Healthy and Equitable
Economy
:
An economy favoring
economic activities that reduce harm and positively benefit the environment and
human health and support a high level of local and equitable employment options
- the foundation for “green jobs”.

·        
Lifelong Education: All
residents have access to lifelong education including access to information
about the city’s history of place, culture, ecology, and tradition provided
through formal and informal education, vocational training and other social
institutions.

·        
Well Being–Quality of
Life
: Strong citizen satisfaction with quality of life indicators including
employment; the built, natural and landscaped environment; physical and mental
health; education; safety; recreation and leisure time; and social belonging.

While some of these categories are being matched to existing
tools and indicators (i.e., Walk Score and similar GIS mapping for Access by
Proximity), other categories will need a period of innovation around analytical processes or tools such as the Gini co-efficient (which may be used to measure income level disparities in the category Healthy and
Equitable Economy) and the Ecological Footprint (to determine Earth’s Carrying Capacity).
These have been extensively modeled on the national level, for instance, but have
yet to be consistently applied on the local level.

The lack of international urban sustainability standards has
perplexed and bedeviled cities, planners, developers and companies wanting a
consistent scorecard across global urban management and development.

True,
international sustainability standards exist for buildings, such as the US
Green Building Council’s LEED, and the BREEAM
standards from the United Kingdom, even neighborhoods (LEED for Neighborhood Development). China is also developing its
own Three Star standard for buildings. Emerging from the Harvard School of Design is the Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure, while BREEAM is launching BREEAM for Communities.

But the time has come for consistent urban sustainability
frameworks and indicators across everything from infrastructure and mobility, to
urban agriculture, energy, water, materials and biodiversity.

The International Ecocity Framework and Standards (IEFS) is
one of the main entrants in the global race to define and measure what makes a
city sustainable. With the cooperation
of its Early Partner Cities, Ecocity Builders and the IEFS will hopefully begin
to answer these key questions along while getting down to the real business: helping solve how the cities of the world are
remaking themselves as ecocities or more sustainable cities to prepare for a future
of more extreme risk–which equals opportunity.

Warren
Karlenzig is president of Common
Current
. He is a fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute,  and co-author of
a
forthcoming United Nations manual on global sustainable city planning and
management. 
  

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Learning from Japan about Resilience


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Hourly Japan ‘s tragedy grows almost beyond comprehension (3/16 Update: The head of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission said this afternoon that releases of radiation at Fukushima have been “extremely high” and that “could impact the ability to take corrective measures.”). There is universal empathy over the pain and
suffering being experienced, fear about impacts on Japan’s and the world’s
economy, and anxiety about releases of radiation. For those of us living in seismically
active coastal earthquake zones (me), or anyone living in the airshed of an
active nuclear facility (most of us), or
living downwind (the West Coast of the US and Canada), concerns are multiplied.  

We must use this teachable moment to comprehensively
plan for climate change, energy availability and transformational natural
disasters. These multi-dimensional factors present non-linear problems bound up
together, a “wicked problem.”

The urban need for effective resilience planning has never
been more urgent or daunting. The Sendai Earthquake shattered existing risk models
with a 9.0 initial offshore earthquake, spawning a colossal tsunami from the
epicenter toward shore, resulting in a humanitarian crisis underpinned by now-uncontrolled
nuclear radiation releases.

Loss of life is rampant, and amongst survivors physical and
psychological suffering is acute. 

All grids are down, no transportation, communications or
energy are available in impact zones. Yet, the modest bicycle has emerged triumphant from the
chaos in Tokyo
and beyond

Infrastructure, communications, trains, subways, roads,
energy, soil, air, water, and food are all impacted in terms of delivery, quality
and supply. People are wisely cloistered indoors, but getting basic supplies
will become the next concern for survival even before the radiation leaks subside.

In terms of global economic fallout, supply chains are getting hit, (microcontrollers,
airplanes, and the automotive and electronics sectors,
impacting global trade at least for the year.

Trend: World supply of renewables are being recalculated and
redefined

Nuclear has lost its dubious “renewable” status
permanently. Anything that makes land and resources unusable and dangerous for
years should not qualify as a first solution. But with coal use likely peaking
as an energy source and because its threat to climate, we are forced to consider nuclear
as an energy option.

Trend: Need for New Nuclear Power Plant Criteria

Earthquake, and Cat 3 to 5 hurricane and typhoon zones
should be taken off the global list of available nuclear energy generation sites. Nuclear needs a complete re-examination in
terms of lifecycle energy costs (how much energy is used in mining uranium and
other material) as well as lifecycle radiation risks.

Trend: Nuclear won’t be Dismissed Outright

Considering the increase in the cities of the developing world
(China, India) and their need for energy–it will be almost impossible to
dismiss nuclear as an energy source, unless some very massive leapfrog
technology comes along. We’re stuck with most of the nuclear plants we have,
at least for now. Plants should be
scrutinized, even temporarily or permanently closed if they can’t be run with “Post-Fukushima” confidence. Germany is doing just
that
to its older nuclear plants. The EU is stress testing more than 100 of its nuclear plants, according to the American Public Media show Marketplace.

France, the world’s leading nuclear economy, doesn’t get major
temblors or tropical storms.  China, on the
other hand, has massive fault zones. Southeast China, like the southeast US,
also hosts its version of Hurricane Alley in its Pearl River Delta region.
China has 13 plants up and running with 20 in planning stages, many in severe
typhoon and earthquake risk areas (3/16 Update: China announced it was at least for now suspending the 37 nuclear plants it had in construction or planning stages.)

The challenge for urban planning agencies in the
Pacific Rim: cities are more likely to be coastal, putting them at heightened
risks for Pacific earthquake zones as well as climate change risks. The rising average
ocean levels resulting from melting polar ice caps will only make tsunamis
and flood events worse. The West Coast of the US dodged a bullet when the tsunami from Japan hit at
low tide: still, California alone had more than $30 million in tsunami damage
last week.

Sea level rises will exacerbate the damage caused by tsunamis, and will also increase
sea water intrusion into drinking water supplies and fresh water ecosystems. About 1.6 million households in Japan were without water as of 3/18.

Distributed Energy, Communications, Transportation and Radiation

Energy: Solar, biogas and fuel cell technologies will gain as
they can be used on or near where they generate energy, providing energy
supplies even after disasters take down the power grid. Distributed forms of
energy require only local transmission lines, which can be repaired quickly.
Wind energy relies more on national grid energy transmission networks (though as
the most affordable major renewable energy supply, wind demands a share of the energy pie). Because
of transmission risks, coal plants will decline, even if “clean coal” is
perfected, let alone invented. Electricity supply is spotty from Tokyo north. Tokyo faces six months of brownouts, or reduced power because of the nuclear crisis (nuclear provides the nation with 30% of its total electric power).

Communications: Cellular telephone service in Japan was severely disrupted,
not so for land lines and internet communications. The recommendation according
to the US Department of State:  “Where
possible, you may be able to contact family members using text messages or
social media such as Facebook or Twitter.” Of course that means email, chat,
Skype, Vonage, etc. work in Japan, too.

Mobility: Trains and subways are back up in the Tokyo Metro, after being mostly down for a few
days, as they are the lifeblood of urban Japanese life. The northeast region,
however, is physically cut off from the urban spine of Tokyo. My Japan
sources, Eric and Ken, tell me the regions should be able to be linked with
cycling, if the right bikes are used (mountain or cruiser tires). I got around
after the San Francisco earthquake of 1989
with an old Fisher (pre “Gary”), and was even regularly able to clamber with
that bike down a post-earthquake four-foot San Andreas Fault road drop on State
Highway One, on cliffs above the Pacific. Though Highway One north was not reopened to
cars for over a year, it still provided cyclists safe passage between West
Marin-San Francisco.

Radiation: When the French, the planet’s reigning nuclear
experts, tell their people to flee Tokyo and then the US warships evacuate,
you know things are critical. Tuesday nuclear plant overflights for aircraft were
banned and, more disturbingly, operators may have been forced by events to abandon nuclear plant control rooms

Besides the immediate risks to health, the big unknown risks
jeopardize land, infrastructure and food. How will Japan safely assess radiation
levels and then make a go/ no go decision for what’s inhabitable or edible? How
will that information be conveyed to the international community? Already the
US has made multiple requests that Japan release more data on its basic air radiation levels
(Update: in the first break of policy with Japan, the US today, 3/16, has set an evacuation zone of 50 miles for US citizens versus a Japanese zone of 12 miles.)

Imagine the complexity of trying to obtain,
analyze and effectively communicate radiation levels in soil, water, food and
products.

Overall, Japan has remained stoic, calm, and orderly for which its
leaders and people should be greatly commended. There have been no reports of looting or price gouging. Now may we all breathe carefully, take
stock of the lessons that emerge, and plan for a world of new forces and
constraints.

We should take heed from Japan. Its situation at present may
seem unbelievably hellish, but it could demonstrate for the world how to face
not only natural disasters that rightfully grab headlines, but also how to deal
with the forces that will always lurk in the background: climate change and
energy supply volatility.

Image: Associated Press via The CityFix

Warren
Karlenzig is president of Common
Current
. He is a fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute, strategic adviser to
the Institute for Strategic Resilience and co-author of
a
forthcoming United Nations manual on global sustainable city planning and
management. 
    

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China’s New Green Plan: the Local Angle

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To get a
better view of what was happening at the local level in terms of China’s new
national low carbon and ecological planning
, I recently traveled to Jiaxing, Zhejiang Province. Jiaxing (above–click on photos for full size) is a
“small town” of about four million that is now only 21 minutes (80 kilometers)
from metro Shanghai on a new high-speed electric train line, the fastest in the
world
–the line, which will eventually extend to Beijing, recently set a test
record of 259 miles per hour
.

I was traveling with other strategic advisers from the Institute for Strategic Resilience, Irv Beiman and Daniel Zhu. Jiaxing is Zhu’s hometown, and he helped arrange our two-day visit.

Jiaxing sees itself as a “Garden
City” (with more than 40 percent forest cover), and truly it felt
that way thanks to extensive landscaping and forests planted on the site of
former rice fields. Jiaxing is also billing itself as the “Oriental Silicon
Valley,” which embodies China’s plans to transform its economy, particularly in
eastern coastal areas such as the Yangtze Delta, from manufacturing to service
industries, such as IT and green technologies, to supplant its product-export-dominated
industrial base.

Jiaxing is
the home of the first official Communist Party of China meeting. It occurred in
1921, with Mao Zedong and a few others from Shanghai on a boat playing Mahjong
for cover out in the middle of the city’s South Lake.

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South Lake and a replica
of the famed boat (above) have long been the site of pilgrimages from Chinese
citizens, which may account for the town’s relative superior level of historic
and cultural preservation.

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South Lake still hosts traditional fisherpeople who
rhythmically clap boards on the gunwales of their sampans in order to scare fish
into awaiting nets.

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Jiaxing has been engaged in careful restoration and reuse of its city center’s large 500+ year-old historic district (above). Starting with the canal that encircles its ancient district, the city is attempting to restore the ecology of its deltaic
landscape and waterways through applied research of the Yangtze Delta Research Center of Tsinghua
University, which is also located in the city. Jiaxing was a north-south node on the great Beijing-Hangzhou Canal, parts of which date back to 2,500 years, the longest engineered water body worldwide.

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In Jiaxing
City Hall, a five-story building passively daylighted with great artistry (above) and
surrounded by acres of naturally looking forest planted eight years ago, we met
with officials. City leadership included the mayor and representatives from the
National Development Reform Commission, or NDRC, to which the mayor reports. They explained
how the city wants to improve its environmental management and clean industry attraction.

They read us
the new goals being dictated from the draft 12th Five Year Plan for 2011-2015,
including how they will need to reduce carbon emissions and decrease fossil
fuel use, SO2, CO2 (and other more toxic emissions), water pollutants (measured primarily through chemical oxygen demand levels, or COD) and acid
rain, while maintaining or restoring forests. While the United States regulates about 1,200 chemicals or pollutants, China currently only regulates about 200.

Water quality is a key national initiative,
especially in the Yangtze River and Pearl River deltas. Poor water quality–at the Fourth World Forum on China Studies that I also presented at, Zhu spoke of water quality in some regional lakes as being 2,000
times over national standards for heavy metals–has been impacting not only the
industry and residents, but also is degrading the estuarine fisheries of the
East and South China Sea. The NDRC party official told us that the city’s water quality
in its canals is a “three or four” on a seven-point scale, with one being the
best. The water in the canals did not stink, but it was an opaque dark brown
indicating possible overload of fertilizers and other organic material.

We toured a
new Science and Industry research center, which had a display on green
chemistry. We also visited a state-of-the-art “living machine” type wetland of
dozens of acres that the city designed to biologically clean its drinking water
while providing open space for recreation. Water fowl and numerous plants
species were abundant in the wetland.

Near the ancient city center, an intact
island city of 500 years old, university-sponsored researchers were using an
experimental technology to oxygenate the organic material-laden canals (from
rice and other fertilizers) that flowed around town from the nearby Yangzte
River.

Officials
told us that Jiaxing is the first city in China as part of national pilot
project to reduce SO2 emissions using a market-based emissions reduction
program. At the city’s pollution exchange center, an official explained how the
price of $20,000 Renminbi ($3,000 US) was assessed per ton on SO2 for the next 20
years for existing industries. Industries or operations that produce too much
air pollution are being discouraged from locating in the city by much greater emissions
fees, three or four times more, that would apply to them.

Highly polluting and energy-intensive plants are being shut down around Jiaxing and throughout
the nation, in China’s east coast in particular. And true to the goals of the
Twelfth Five Year Plan, Jiaxing, instead of pursuing more primary or secondary
manufacturing, the “Oriental Silicon Valley” (there has to be a better way to
translate that nickname!) is vying for software, telecommunications and service
industries.

Though Jiaxing is making strides as a center of research and applied research for environmental management and low-carbon approaches and technologies, its new green evolution is not without hurdles.

Like many local and regional governments, the city and the Zhejiang Province, have been struggling to meet the energy efficiency mandates of the national 11th Five Year Plan that officially that ends December 31. In order to achieve the goals of the 11th Five Year Plan for energy-use reduction, rolling blackouts were occurring throughout the area, forcing industry to use dirtier diesel generators for electricity, which contributed to local air pollution as well as shortages of diesel gasoline used by trucks.

As Jiaxing illustrates, no one expects China’s new greener path to be easy or without conflicts. The implications for this new direction, however, augers well on a number of fronts. China’s new National 12th Five Year Plan should be a boon for greater technological innovation, greener economic growth and greater attention to global (climate change) and national environmental degradation, as well as international cooperation.

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current. He is a fellow at the
Post-Carbon Institute, strategic adviser to the Institute for Strategic Resilience and co-author of
a forthcoming United Nations manual on global sustainable city planning and management. 
 




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