SHANGHAI–The Shanghai Expo officially closed yesterday with pomp, circumstance, and a confirmation of the city as the planet’s primary hope for a low-carbon future.
“Eco-friendly development and dissemination of renewable energy sources and new materials will influence the way we live and will lead the course of industrial development in the future,” said China’s Premier Wen Jiabao to the closing Expo Summit contingent of domestic and foreign dignitaries (eight heads of state), Nobel Prize winners and business leaders.
The World Expo, the world’s largest in history with 73 million attending, for the first time in 159 years focused on cities, sustainable ones that is. China’s plans for 350-600 million more urban residents by 2050 threatens to tip the earth’s scales in terms of climate change and the economy so much that China is now focused on a fifth global industrial wave: the low-carbon or green economy.
“The low-carbon economy is a new industrial revolution,” said Sir Nicholas Stern, Chairman of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics. “Low-carbon growth is cleaner, safer, far more attractive while high-carbon growth will kill itself. China is well placed for this industrial revolution.”
Stern, author of the groundbreaking 2006 “Stern Review: the Economics of Climate Change”, was referring to China’s new national pilot program announced thus summer by its all-powerful National Development Reform Commission for five low-carbon provinces and eight low-carbon cities.
One of the low-carbon cities, Baoding, for instance, within the last three years added 20,000 new jobs in wind, PV solar ( the city of one million is home to Yingli Solar, among other renewable start-ups), and other renewable energy technologies. It’s also the site of large-scale energy efficiency and renewable energy installations in everything from building-integrated solar to streetlights. The new national pilot programs are expected to pick up the pace and provide a template for the rest of the nation’s provincial and city low-carbon transformations.
Throughout its six-month run, the Shanghai Expo featured numerous forums on urban sustainability. Meanwhile, its pavilions employed many new green technologies in design and architecture. More than 500 new technologies in solar, heat pumps, energy efficiency, transportation and advanced material were developed as part of the Expo, according to ShiFang Tang, Technical Office Vice Director for the Shanghai Expo Bureau.
The massive China Pavilion and the country’s “theme” pavilions on sustainable cities and urban best practices repeatedly and effectively emphasized how the challenges of climate change, pollution and growing consumer consumption can be met with more advanced urban planning, green technology innovation and citizen education.
The displays and creativity were the best I’ve experienced, anywhere, in terms of sustainability information, education and multi-media. For instance, one entire building was devoted to four real families living in the cities of four different contenents, Australia, North America, Africa and China. The exhibit demonstrated through video, waxed figures (the mostly Chinese crowds especially loved these) and other physical displays demonstrating how each family lived and what they did for work, fun, school. At the same time it taught people experiencing the multi-level walk-through how much each family consumed in terms of resources, even land, and how that impacted climate change: carbon or ecological footprinting education for the masses.
The takeaway is that China is serious about climate change as a threat to the world and itself, and it intends to capitalize on this inevitability with all its might. China’s National Development Reform Commission’s low carbon pilot projects comprise 27 percent of the nation’s population, and about one-third of its total economic output. The new low-carbon pilot projects span not only provincial and city planning and operations, but also industrial, economic and social planning, including education. In short, the whole ball of wax: “China will accelerate the model of sustainable development where nature, the planet and people can survive and thrive,” said China’s Premier Wen Jiabao at the Expo Summit’s closing ceremonies.
It will be a tough path, indeed. Only one day after industrial controls were lifted that were in place for six months during the Expo in order to reduce regional air pollution, the air quality in Shanghai has already gone from crystal clear to disturbingly smoggy. As Stern pointed out to a rapt audience at the Shanghai Expo Summit, China will need to reduce its projected total greenhouse gas emissions from 35 billion tons in 2030 to 20 billion tons by 2050 if the world will have any chance of realizing the 2 degree Celsius maximum global temperature increase agreed to with the 2009 Copenhagen Accord.
China, if it continues on its current trajectory of yearly greenhouse gas emission increases, will by 2030, according to Stern, account for 50 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas “budget” under Copenhagen while being home to only 17-18 percent of the world’s population.
“New green investments will help China continue its lead in the green race that has already begun,” Stern predicted. “Green policies are at the heart of the 12th Five-year Plan (the nation’s economic master plan for the near future, a new version which was recently drafted), showing the world what is possible.”
Meanwhile, Shanghai, China’s largest and most cosmopolitan city, is deconstructing many of its Expo buildings for reuse in other parts of the nation, and also for other bidders outside China so that its Expo theme of “Better City, Better Life” gets a second and maybe even more lives.
Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally active consultancy based in San Anselmo, California. 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.