Friday, November 28, 2008

Article - China envisions environmentally friendly 'eco-city'

By Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY (15 Feb 2007)

CHONGMING ISLAND, China — At the mouth of the Yangtze River, an hour by ferry from Shanghai, a new kind of Chinese city will rise from the mudflats and wetlands.

In three years, the island's black-faced spoonbills and other rare birds will share this migratory stop with 25,000 humans, the initial inhabitants of what developers call the world's first "eco-city."

If Dongtan Eco-City opens on schedule, it will become a carbon-neutral urban showcase at about the same moment scientists foresee China surpassing the United States as the globe's leading emitter of greenhouse gases.

The state-run developer behind the $1.3 billion project envisions three modern villages on Chongming Island, which is about three-quarters the size of Manhattan. The communities will be powered by energy captured from sun, wind, biofuels and recycled organic material. A quarter of the island will be untouched ecological buffer. Grasses will grow on rooftops for natural insulation. Rainwater will be purified for use. Vehicles will operate on clean fuels.

Four other Chinese cities plan to build similar eco-zones. London Mayor Ken Livingstone, who visited Dongtan last April, said he wants to build a smaller version along the River Thames.

Development and damage

China has managed a century of economic development in little more than a generation — and ravaged itself in the process. Today, it is home to 16 of the world's 20 most polluted cities, the World Bank says. It battles the effects of deforestation and overgrazing — soil erosion and spreading deserts — while annually losing grasslands equivalent to an area the size of Connecticut. The State Environmental Protection Administration says China's major rivers are dangerously polluted, half its cities are choked by hazardous air, and acid rain falls on a third of the country's land mass.

Thanks to prevailing winds across the Pacific, the USA is firmly in China's firing line. China is the major source for deposits of mercury, a highly toxic metal, in the western half of the USA, says Jozef Pacyna, a professor at the Norwegian Institute for Air Research. Mercury billows into the atmosphere from coal-burning power plants, source of 70% of China's energy, but it is only the tip of a toxic iceberg: Coal contains more than 60 trace minerals and heavy metals, Pacyna says.

Dongtan's backers see the city as an answer to the staggering environmental degradation in China. "It could be a model — and not just for China," says Nicole Deng, operations director for Shanghai Industrial Investment Co. (SIIC), the company behind the project.

The British design firm hired by SIIC to design Dongtan says the city will be practical and commercially sensible — high-tech, economically vibrant, a model for urban planners everywhere — not a green utopian boondoggle.

"The main grid of the city will be for walking and cycling, not cars. There will be public transport within (550 yards) of each home," says Peter Head, director of Arup, the British firm designing Dongtan. "With no (gasoline) or diesel engines, Dongtan will be a quiet place. So you can open windows and ventilate buildings."

To be carbon-neutral, Dongtan must cut carbon emissions as much as possible and offset remaining emissions by planting trees and using environmentally friendly technologies to generate energy.

The island is to be connected to Shanghai and the mainland by a new 15.6-mile bridge and tunnel. Road and rail links will cut commuting time from Dongtan to 45 minutes.

Construction on the island is to start in September. Even with 20% of projected dwellings set aside for affordable housing, the farmers living here say it will be too pricey for them to stay. Dongtan "won't help me," says Peng Shouyong, who makes about $700 a year raising pigs, growing crops and breeding crabs on the island. "But China needs it."

Doubts about project

In Shanghai, there is skepticism. "So many real estate projects advertise themselves as 'green this' or 'green that,' " says Shen Yue, a film director.

China "is littered with expensive demonstration projects that have not been replicated," says Elizabeth Economy, senior fellow at the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations and author of The River Runs Black, a book about China's environment. Even so, she says Dongtan is "potentially an exciting advance."

SIIC won't discuss some details, such as how much it will charge for homes and apartments. It has scaled back aspects of the project. Head says Dongtan is "the first step down a new road, not a final answer to anything."

The project comes as the central government tries to halt the country's environmental decline and find workable energy alternatives — without slowing the 10% annual economic growth rate. Beijing has moved to shut unlicensed power plants. Alternative fuels are to provide 16% of total energy by 2020.

Pan Yue, deputy director for the State Environment Protection Administration, told state media that environmental issues have "become a key bottleneck" for the economy. The government's China Modernization Report, issued last month, acknowledged that the country had made no progress in protecting the environment over the past three years.

China's leaders "finally realize they need to use new energy. Not because it is cheaper, but because they see the environmental problems associated with fossil fuels and (because) they are worried about the increased importation of oil," says Zhang Zhongxiang, an energy and environment expert at the East-West Center in Hawaii.

Wind farms have sprouted up in Inner Mongolia and elsewhere. "If there is any spare land in windy areas, people are looking to develop wind farms," says Alex Westlake, chief operating officer of Camco International, a British firm that helps companies reduce emissions.

Yang Ailun, a climate and energy specialist at Greenpeace China, says the country's belated environmental awakening can't prevent it from becoming the world's top polluter — and might not be enough to keep Dontgan from being doomed.

Global warming is raising ocean levels so fast, Yang says, that the eco-city and Chongming Island could eventually "disappear because of climate change."

No comments: