Now that I am back home, I wanted to share a few final thoughts about my trip to China. One thing that became quite clear during my visit was how fully the nation’s leaders have discarded the wisdom of the Ming and Qing dynasties, which rejected outside knowledge. Each of the cities I spent time in exhibits how quickly a nation can come when it accepts best practices from around the globe (I wish we Americans were far better in this area). Although they are working within an authoritarian government, one of the great advantage of China’s ruling class is that they are far more educated compared with their counterparts in most ‘western’ nations. The Politburo Standing Committee’s training in engineering, science, and economics makes them very unusual, but also provides them with an understanding of the need to balance economic growth with enlightened environmental policies. I would say they have done a pretty remarkable job in achieving this balance, although this means they will likely continue to be the largest greenhouse gas emitting nation for decades to come.
One of the most amazing and heartening trends in the nation is rapid urbanization — as long as it is done correctly. More than two-thirds of the population will live in urban settings by 2035. There are already more than 100 cities with more than a million people, which far exceeds the United States. While many of these cities must make huge advances in infrastructure development so they can meet the full potential of urban areas to enhance both quality of life and climate security, they have good role models in the three cities I visited. China faces significant risks from climate change, which should provide it a continued incentive to move forward with better policy solutions. Maplecroft’s Climate Change and Environmental Risk Atlas ranks five Chinese cities as ‘high risk:’ Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Wuhan, and Shanghai. They make this list because of vulnerability to potential sea level rises and ongoing water insecurity (this latter concern applies to the whole nation, which might have a high level of food insecurity in the near future if urban sprawl and desertification aren’t checked).
Some environmentalists make the dubious claim that urbanization has been bad for China. The question I often ask my students, however, is whether we want a future with a large number of rural poor who don’t emit large amounts of greenhouse gases or a large number of wealthier urbanites that emit more? From my perspective, the former answer is hugely hypocritical given that we know how much greater the quality of life is for the latter group. The better point to make is that if the Chinese population is going to be increasingly urban, how do we ensure high density while still promoting community and quality of life? Once again, I believe China’s ‘global cities’ are engaged in useful experiments that can be used for other growing areas.
China doesn’t have a particularly good history of urban planning outside their key cities. In their more than fifty official ‘metropolitan areas,’ which account for more than half of the national economy, density benefits have lagged behind advanced nations largely because of a historical lack of smart planning. There has been a pattern of growth that has encouraged dead zones between population centers, which makes planning for modern infrastructure networks (particularly transportation) very difficult. The good news is that the national government has projected that they will need to build between twenty and fifty thousand new skyscrapers and 170 mass transit systems in the next dozen years. To make the latter work economically, they will almost certainly need to plan for more density in the construction of the former.
In the end, I was favorably impressed with what I saw in China’s leading cities. There are still advances to be made, but they are each actively engaged in the project. The big question in the future will be how effectively the central government can transfer best practices from Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong to the rapidly growing urban centers in other parts of the country. Combined with a more energy efficient manufacturing sector, this is likely to be the most important policy direction for China in the next two decades — with the need for a mass transfer of power production from coal to renewables likely coming toward the end of this period. As long as they can maintain social stability without political reform (a big if), it seems like the current generation of leaders have signalled that they understand the problem and agree that these are the key solutions. Let’s hope they are able to make it happen.