China’s Green Evolution

In Longreads

Zhao QingHao, the first resident of China’s first eco-village, is a 58-year-old polio victim whose left leg is twisted at a 60-degree angle below the knee. He walks with a cane fashioned out of PVC tubing and smokes a pipe and the occasional enormous, self-rolled cigarette. His wife, Yi Shiqin, who is 50, is mentally disabled and has a speech impediment. Their family is one of the poorest in a poor community, and their new eco-home has not helped. They have no heat and no water. They have a gas meter but no gas. They have no neighbors on their deserted street, no room to grow corn in their tiny garden, no place in their yard for the cashmere goats that once provided a third of their income. As temperatures dropped last winter, the bio-gasification plant intended to power the village still wasn’t working. When snow piled up waist-deep outside their door, they locked themselves in their bedroom because the rest of the house was too cold. Zhao took a pickax and hacked a hole into the wall to create a makeshift fireplace, where they burned wood from the local forest.

China’s eco-revolution wasn’t meant to go this way, and Zhao and Yi hadn’t meant to be eco-pioneers. But their old house, a stone structure Zhao had lived in since the 1960s, was gutted by an electrical fire in May 2006. The local government gave their $2,600 in restitution money to the developer of the eco-village. The couple had little choice. Along with their former neighbors, whose house had also burned, they became the sole residents of Huangbaiyu New Village-model inhabitants of a model community that was supposed to prove that China could grow up green. Five days after Zhao and Yi moved in, a convoy of black sedans pulled into Huangbaiyu: a delegation of officials and journalists from Beijing, here to witness the village’s progress.

The plans for Huangbaiyu-one of the half-dozen eco-cities, megalopolises and capitals of pollution I visited this spring to gauge whether China can engineer itself out of environmental catastrophe-were drawn by none other than William McDonough, the celebrated former “Green Dean” of the University of Virginia’s architecture school and godfather of America’s sustainable-design movement. In 1996 McDonough was the first, and so far only, individual to win the White House award for green design; the title of his 2002 book, Cradle to Cradle, which refers to an environmentally harmless cycle of manufacture and reuse, has become a sustainability buzz term. Huangbaiyu, in far northeastern China, was the first development project by the China-U.S. Center for Sustainable Development, a nonprofit McDonough started with Deng Nan, the daughter of former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. McDonough’s drawings depicted a beautiful teardrop of a village filling a forested valley. Its homes were to feature solar panels, eco-bricks made of hay and clay, and southern exposure to maximize sunlight. The project would pay for itself as families from old Huangbaiyu, a village of 1,370, decided to trade in their former homes. The old dwellings would revert to fields, and Huangbaiyu’s farmable area would grow (how this would ever make sense economically was never made clear). Like Dongtan, the much larger eco-city now taking form on the margins of Shanghai and another stop on my tour, Huangbaiyu was the subject of glowing press coverage. The local entrepreneur selected to build the new homes, Dai Xiaolong, who is also the village chief, took out nearly $1 million in loans to pay for construction. Convinced that Huangbaiyu would be famous around the world, the first of a wave of green cities across China, he also took out thousands of trademarks-Huangbaiyu Windows, Huangbaiyu Motors, Huangbaiyu Refrigerators-and waited to cash in.

I set out for Huangbaiyu on a sunny spring day along with my friend and translator Flora. We took a taxi from the regional capital, Shenyang, and followed a newly built expressway to a newly paved road. The new village’s 42 homes, with yellow walls and red roofs, were laid out in a grid, like a piece of half-built American suburbia here in the Chinese countryside. Very little of Dai’s interpretation of McDonough’s plans was obviously “eco.” Shannon May, an anthropologist from the University of California at Berkeley who spent 18 months living in Huangbaiyu, told me that Dai-who had little experience as a builder, let alone a green builder-had neither the expertise nor the support to fulfill McDonough’s vision. “It was like the Chia Pet model of development,” she said. “Just add water.” Because Dai was short on funds, only one house had a solar panel. A dozen workers mixed cement near what was to be the revamped bio-gasification plant, which had a hopeful coat of green paint. Two more workers, here to water a few meager strips of grass, were sitting on metal buckets, drunk at 11 in the morning. One sprang up and kissed me on the cheek. “Americans, you hug them, you kiss them, they don’t care!” he exclaimed. It would have been nicer had he shaved.

We toured old Huangbaiyu, a beautiful collection of stone homes where ducks waddled down the main street and villagers plowed fields with pairs of horses, and after lunch we headed the few hundred yards back to the new village, where Zhao and Yi soon arrived home from the faraway plot where they had been planting corn. Their hands were stained red from pesticides. “Come into my home,” Zhao said. “Come, come.” He showed us the fireplace he’d cut into the wall, and his freshly tilled vegetable patch, where he was planting beans and cucumbers in a space a fifth the size of his old garden. “This project is a waste of money,” he said. “These houses are suitable for factory workers, not country people.” He handed us a couple cans of Snow beer and cracked one open for himself. “Chinese people think this beer is only half as good, because in our minds, foreign beer tastes best,” Zhao said. “But I think this is pretty good beer.”

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The first thing to understand is that China’s problem is our own. For every Chinese peasant who moves to the city-400 million are expected to do so in the next two decades, the greatest urban migration in history-the world loses someone who lives off the land and gains someone who lives on the grid. This year, for the first time ever, the planet has more urbanites than rural residents, a shift attributable in large part to China and its dozens of million-person cities you’ve never heard of. City dwellers in the developing world use at least three times as much energy as those in the country. The richer they get-the richer China gets-the more they use. China’s economic boom, a 10 percent increase in GDP every year, is twice that of America’s at the height of the dot-com era and shows no signs of relenting. Half of the world’s new buildings go up in China. The country has constructed the equivalent of the U.S. highway system in a decade. It adds the electricity use of Norway, 102 gigawatts, to its power grid every year and builds the equivalent of three coal-fired electricity plants every week (not one, as is usually reported). Last year, it produced 2.3 billion metric tons of coal, 40 percent of the world’s total and more than the U.S., Russia and India combined.

There is no dirtier form of energy than coal, and there is no dirtier coal than China’s. Few of the country’s plants have sulfur scrubbers, making China the world’s largest emitter of sulfur dioxide, which causes the acid rain that falls on a third of Chinese territory. Last year, the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) recalculated the country’s GDP to account for environmental costs-and reported a 3 percent reduction (others estimate 8 to 15 percent). That same year, 4,700 people were killed in coal-mining accidents.

In February, South Korea suffered two weeks of toxic dust storms that meteorologists blamed on China. In April 2006, a similar cloud of pollution was spotted floating over the Pacific toward North America [see “Endangered Orbits”]. U.S. soil is filled with Chinese particulates; roughly 50 percent of our mercury comes from foreign, mostly Chinese, coal plants. But while China’s smog becomes our problem and its petroleum companies buy up Africa’s oil fields and its livestock eat up the soy that deforests the Amazon, what the world really fears is China’s coal-powered greenhouse emissions.

China was responsible for 8 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions in 1980. By 2004, it was responsible for 18 percent. In April the International Energy Agency’s chief economist declared that China would surpass the U.S. as the world’s top emitter of greenhouse gases-not in 2009 or 2010, as previously thought, but this year. It may already have happened.

Also in April, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the EPA would have to do more to regulate auto emissions, President Bush used China to excuse his inaction: “Unless there is an accord with China, China will produce greenhouse gases that will offset anything we do,” he argued. Meanwhile, China’s official response to a report released in February by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has since recommended that urgent action be taken to prevent catastrophic climate change, was that developed countries’ responsibility for global warming “cannot be shirked.” As a developing country, China should not be expected to wholly sacrifice its growth, said spokeswoman Jiang Yu. “It must be pointed out that climate change has been caused by the long-term historic emissions of developed countries and their high per-capita emissions.”

The simple fact is that if the world’s emissions are not reduced, global warming will flood Florida as surely as it melts China’s Himalayas. Our fates are intertwined, and ever more so as China becomes the world’s factory. Every minute of every day in 2005, American consumers bought $463,200 worth of Chinese goods-a number that has undoubtedly risen as the trade deficit has jumped from a monthly average of $16.8 billion in 2005 to more than $19 billion today. Chinese firms are blamed for deforesting tropical Southeast Asia, but 70 percent of the wood imported goes into furniture bound for Europe and North America. Energy-intensive heavy industry such as steel production is migrating from the developed world to China’s eastern coast. A 2005 study by Bin Shui and Robert Harris of Colorado’s National Center for Atmospheric Research determined that from 1997 to 2003, China-U.S. trade increased global CO2 emissions by 720 million metric tons. Some 7 to 14 percent of China’s emissions resulted from exports to American customers; had the goods been produced here, our national
CO2 emissions would be up to 6 percent higher, and the U.S. would still be the top greenhouse emitter in the world. Simply put, this is our pollution too-we’ve just outsourced it to China.

It seems only right, then, that the world’s great planners and architects and environmentalists are landing in droves in Beijing and Shanghai, hoping to help China engineer itself out of a crisis, to prevent it from repeating the West’s mistakes. The more the world realizes that its environmental future is tied to China’s, the more experts will come. The question, ultimately, is whether all their grand efforts will make any difference at all.

On a Friday a week before my trip to Huangbaiyu, 200 of the planet’s top green architects, engineers and urban planners were packed into a hall at Shanghai’s Tongji University, listening, rapt, to a talk by Peter Head of the global design firm Arup. The subject was the eco-city of Dongtan, an Arup-led project 25 miles away on the Yangtze River’s Chongming Island, the Shanghai municipality’s last patch of undeveloped land. “Dongtan is a specific project for a specific place. . . . But the world is reacting to it,” he said. “It’s a vision for how we can transform cities into something better.”

A soft-spoken man in his early 60s with a gray mustache and a penchant for occasional Britishisms such as “jiggery-pokery,” Head was something of a star in this crowd. The leader of Arup’s 100-person Dongtan team, he is an engineer and bridge-builder who has spent eight years on London’s Sustainable Development Commission. He had a hand in imposing on London drivers the 8 ($16) congestion fee that has made the city notably quieter and freer of traffic (New York is considering a similar system), and now he is creating what many hope will be the world’s first true eco-city. One PowerPoint slide showed him in the company of British prime minister Tony Blair and Chinese president Hu Jintao, signing the 2005 agreement to build Dongtan, a project that, unlike little Huangbaiyu, is being pushed by the highest levels of the Chinese government.

Head described Dongtan as not just a city but an ecosystem. Planning was an exercise in integrated thinking-“integrated urbanism,” as Arup’s literature calls it. Transportation was considered at the same time as health care, because in the big picture, one affects the other: The more walking and the less air pollution, the healthier the people, and the lower the health-care costs. Similarly, if internal-combustion engines are banned, Dongtan’s office buildings will save on air-conditioning: Workers won’t mind opening windows to cool down their offices if traffic noise is absent and the air is clean. Head’s planning team includes economists, water engineers, graphic designers, property consultants, “cultural specialists” and a philosopher-an approach far more multidisciplinary than the one that birthed Huangbaiyu. He showed a slide of his Chinese team’s “barrel principle” of city development: an image of a wooden barrel that holds only as much water as its shortest rib allows.

The first 2.5 square miles of the 33-square-mile Dongtan site to be developed-which will house the first 80,000 of its eventual 500,000 inhabitants-will sit at the edge of a bird refuge for the endangered black-faced spoonbill. This starter section of the city, made up of three separate villages, will be bisected by waterways and walking and biking paths, bounded by public-transport loops and green space. Water taxis will ply its canals, and the only vehicles allowed inside city limits will run on electricity or hydrogen-zero noise and zero emissions. No residence will be farther than three minutes by foot from a park, seven minutes from public transportation, and eight minutes from a village center. Street lamps will be solar-powered, wastewater will be treated and recycled, and buildings will use two thirds less energy than conventional structures. Dongtan will run on 100 percent renewable energy, much of which will come from a plant powered by rice husks, an unwanted by-product that could arrive by barge from up the Yangtze. With notable exceptions-including hyper-efficient, LED-lit “plant factories” where organic crops will be stacked on five layers of trays-Dongtan’s innovation is its holistic perspective, not its individual technological breakthroughs. Its ecological footprint, the amount of land it takes to sustain one of its citizens, is just 6.4 acres per person. (In London and Shanghai, by comparison, it takes around 14.5 acres. In Houston it’s nearly 30 acres.) By 2010, when a 15-mile bridge-and-tunnel complex over and under the Yangtze-the longest in the world-is completed and the World Expo is held in Shanghai (which in these parts gets mentioned far more often than Beijing’s 2008 Olympics), Dongtan will be ready for its first residents. How? “Building happens five times as fast here,” Head explained. “Everything goes at a factor of five in China.”

The next morning, on a smoggy, dreary day, I joined 100 or so of the green architects and engineers-participants in the biennial Holcim Forum on Sustainable Construction-on a tour of Dongtan and Chongming, all of which, the government says, will be responsibly developed as an “eco-island.” We took buses to a Yangtze ferry to more buses, shuttling past a few incongruous, smoke-spitting factories to reach the Chongming exhibition center. Inside were local dignitaries and a scale model of the island and its master plan. For 10 minutes, a robotic voice droned on in perfect English about the green future of Chongming. Outside the Dongtan site, which takes up just the island’s southern tip, there would be forest parks and lakes and a new “oriental Geneva” conference center. Everything seemed master-planned down to the placement of the sailboats, and as the Chinese officials dodged every specific question asked, I found myself increasingly
skeptical that the island’s development would be anywhere near as green as promised. The crowd seemed to feel
the same way. “Is it realistic?” asked a German architect standing near me of his Brazilian friend. “It’s total crap-
propaganda,” the other replied.

The buses next took us to a patch of supposedly sustainable McMansions, and the multinational crowd of architects scoffed at the American-size, single-family homes. Clearly built for the elite, they had giant living rooms, garages, balconies, and sculpted yards with rock gardens and bamboo-shaded walkways. “This one will be perfect for 30 or 40 migrant workers,” whispered a Swiss planner. “There are no stores in the bottom floors, no places to eat,” griped a Spaniard. “They’ll have to
drive everywhere.”

We caravanned to an organic farm with no organic farmers and then to the Dongtan wetland, where not a single bird was in sight. With the bridge soon to connect mostly undeveloped Chongming to downtown Shanghai (travel time will be shortened to 40 minutes from the current three hours on boat and bus), construction was everywhere-villas, apartment blocks, bridges, roads-and very little of it seemed particularly green. The perspective was sobering. The first phase of Dongtan, which will be completed over the next decade, will take up one eighth of a 33-square-mile site that is itself only1/14of the 470-square-mile island, which is itself only one fifth the area of the Shanghai municipality, which is itself only a tiny piece of massive China: 18.7 million people and 2,448 square miles in a country of 1.3 billion people and 3.7 million square miles. As sustainable and hopeful and unassailably brilliant as Dongtan may aspire to be, a showcase eco-city can do little on its own to save China from itself.

I made a second Dongtan visit the next day with a translator named Sissi, a friend of a friend of a friend who wore high-heeled, knee-high leather boots as we tromped through the mud. Sissi is 21 and owns three cellphones (she can never remember to recharge them in time, so she just swaps them out). She works as a party and music promoter when not studying, and she loves hip-hop and Beijing punk rock. Recently, she told me, some exchange students at her university taught her how to do the “booty shake.” She wore a jacket with a blue faux-fur collar, and her gray sweater read “Abercrombie” (but not “Fitch”). Her mother had been “reeducated” here on Chongming Island along with other Shanghai intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution, forced to work the fields for four years. Her father’s office, the customs building on the historic Bund waterfront, was taken over by families who hung their laundry in its stately halls. But Sissi’s family had emerged in a good position in the new, money-driven Shanghai. To walk with her through Dongtan’s fields was to see the Chongming gold rush-properties already selling for an inflated $45 a square foot will climb to $70 or more when the bridge is complete-through the eyes of the elite, Westernizing Shanghainese.

Sissi and I talked first with three women planting watermelon seeds in a muddy field. They were in their 50s and 60s and were bending over in the sun, using a foot-long stick to measure out the distance between seeds. Last year their own land, allotted to them by the government, was taken away to be developed, part of the green master plan for Chongming. They now receive 440 yuan (about $57) a month in restitution-not enough, they said. To supplement it, they work here for a local boss on 40 acres of land that itself may soon be reclaimed by the government, making just over 50 cents an hour in 8- to 10-hour days.

In the nearby town of Niupeng, Sissi and I saw where many of the displaced Chongming farmers are being housed: row after row of identical gray, four-story, 12- to 24-unit apartment blocks. One complex had at least 40 of these buildings, and alongside it was a neighborhood of razed homes, traditional dwellings similar to Old Huangbaiyu’s that were being cleared to make way for more high-density housing. Red banners with yellow characters-“Cooperate with the Government’s Work”-hung one after another over Niupeng’s main street, on either side of which were piles of rubble. One lot was a graveyard of wooden doors collected from the destroyed houses. About 20 of the neighborhood’s homes were holdouts, still standing as their owners waited for a better payout from the authorities.

Before we returned to the skyscrapers of downtown Shanghai, we stopped where the new bridge and its six-lane highway will make landfall. Already all 216 of the structure’s deepwater piers were in place, stretching out of sight across the Yangtze, an endless line of enormous cement stumps. Workers in yellow helmets and orange life jackets, mostly migrants from the south, swarmed the site. They told us that they worked in one of three eight-hour shifts per day; construction went on nonstop, seven days a week. Those who worked and slept on the middle section of the bridge, out in the center of the brown river, took turns each night toting the crew’s cellphones to and from land, where they could get text messages from wives and families. The scale of the project-the size of the human tide that will swallow Chongming whole-was hard to miss, and Sissi didn’t. “I have to bring my mother back here so we can invest in some properties,” she said.

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The world’s most polluted city is a funny place to find hope for China’s ecological future, but that’s where I found it. Linfen, an ancient Chinese capital in the middle of what is now the country’s richest coal province, Shanxi, was number one on China’s list of most polluted cities in 2004, 2005 and 2006. It topped the global roster put out in 2006 by the Blacksmith Institute, an environmental NGO, beating out such toxic notables as Chernobyl, Ukraine, and Dzerzhinsk, Russia (site of a Cold Warâ€era chemical-weapons plant). Linfen became infamous overnight, a mandatory stop for newspaper correspondents. “It’s an apocalyptic vision of clanking factories, spewing smokestacks, burning flames, suffocating fumes, slag heaps, constant haze and relentless dust,” wrote Geoffrey York in Canada’s Globe and Mail in February.
By reputation, Linfen is the only place in China where you can walk down the hall of your hotel and actually see the air. Flora and I arrived carrying special Japanese face masks and wardrobes in which the only pieces of white clothing were my tube socks.

What we hadn’t prepared for was the possibility that Linfen would be sunny and pleasant, freshened by a spring breeze rushing through a basin that often traps in air pollution. Shanxi Province has 270 billion tons of proven coal reserves, and coal is everywhere-piled in back alleys, sold in burnable cubes from the back of mopeds, used to pop the popcorn sold by street-side vendors. Coal-fired power plants and aluminum and steel smelters surround the city. Part of the improvement was the season; the worst pollution is in winter, when homes burn coal for warmth and the air is dead calm. But every resident we talked to said it wasn’t just the weather, that Linfen was actually becoming cleaner. We visited the local SEPA office to find out why. The windowsills were covered with dust, the walls stained gray from soot, but in the building’s entryway was an LCD screen displaying the air-pollution index-today was a passable two on a scale of five. Yang Zhaofeng, the bureau’s deputy director, was summoned, and we sat with him and a crowd of underlings in a room ringed with leather chairs. Yang’s explanation of Linfen’s rebirth was simple: “After we found out we were number one in pollution, we did all we could to take off the dunce cap.”

Linfen’s descent into coal-fired hell happened at a staggering pace. It began with the economic boom of the late 1990s and sped up after 2002, when domestic energy demand spiked, coal prices jumped, and the reins on private mine owners were loosened. At its low point, in 2004, Linfen had only 15 days out of 365 with an acceptable level of air pollution (two or above on the index). But now, Yang said, the cleanup was equally dramatic. The first step was to block coal trucks at the city’s boundaries; suddenly there was much less coal dust. Next came heating: In 2006 alone, Linfen added enough gas-fired central heating to reach more than half of the city’s 4.1 million people, and it knocked down 197 large coal-fired boilers and more than 600 smaller, family-size boilers. Now 85 percent of the city uses natural gas rather than coal for their heating. Perhaps most significant is the crackdown on dirty factories at the fringes of Linfen. SEPA forced 100 of the smaller, less efficient, often illegal ones to close last year, and this year it has given notice to nearly 150 more. The city’s larger factories face new environmental standards, and the government is helping them to install sulfur scrubbers. With those that don’t follow its directives, SEPA plays hardball-freezing their bank accounts, cutting off their electricity, and blocking all transportation to and from the facility. Flora and I heard rumors that, if needed, SEPA sometimes takes a final step: It sends in an explosives team and simply blows up the offending businesses. The result? In 2006, Linfen had 202 days above level two on the pollution index. By May of this year, it already had 87-22 days ahead of last year’s pace. Recently the city of Urumqi, in far western China, overtook Linfen to become first on the country’s list of most polluted cities. “When you come back next year, Linfen will be even cleaner,” Yang promised.

On our final morning in Linfen, a government handler who had attached himself to us after the SEPA meeting-a man I knew by his English moniker, Sunshine-picked us up at our hotel and drove us to the city’s top attraction, the Yao Temple. Linfen, known as Pingyang in ancient times, is considered one of China’s first capitals, and its first ruler more than 4,000 years ago was Emperor Yao. We were in a black sedan with leather seats, the symbol of power in new China. “I am from the municipal government,” the driver barked at the guards when we reached the temple, and we drove up and walked right through the door once reserved for the emperor. We saw some gongs and a well that apparently still had potable water, and then a monk fleeced me for $25 by blessing the largest stick of incense he could find, handing it to me, and asking me to pay for it as Sunshine nodded encouragingly. The day was sunny and the sky blue, and when the monk lit the eight-foot-long stick of incense for me, its smoke was the worst air pollution I’d experienced in Linfen.

Newly blessed, we walked next door to Yao Miao Square, a gaudy tourist trap and monument to the coal money that had built it. Completed in 2005, just in time to host the 2005 Miss Universal Bikini contest, the square’s centerpiece was a 170-foot-tall gate (we were repeatedly told it was slightly taller than the Arc de Triomphe) that was filled with replicas representing the entirety of Chinese history: busts of Confucius, bronze miniatures of the Great Wall, statues of the heroes who invented gunpowder, paper and the compass. We rode an elevator to the roof and looked out over Linfen’s forest of smokestacks, very few of which were spewing any smoke.

Flora and I descended, said good-bye to Sunshine, and hailed a taxi that would take us on an unsupervised tour of the industrial suburb of He Xi. There the buildings were stained brown-gray and the road was covered in layers of coal dust, but, as SEPA had claimed, the majority of the factories were shuttered. On the side of the road we met two workers who had just lost their jobs at a steel factory. They had earned $25 a week breaking down chunks of coal residue into smaller chunks, but a month ago the government shut the factory-and them-down. It was not an uplifting encounter, but in the context of China’s massive pollution problem, the brute efficiency with which the city’s economy had been turned upside down offered grounds for a sort of hope. Linfen, once the shortest plank in the Chinese barrel, was far better proof than Dongtan or Huangbaiyu that China’s top-down, authoritarian development model—an unyielding machine greatly more efficient than that of a messy democracy—could apply to ecological as well as economic progress. In the center of the former most polluted city in the world, it was evident that if China wills it, it has the power to impose environmentalism by fiat, to green the entire country at five times the speed the West ever could. All the rest of the world has to do is wait.

First published in Popular Science.

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McKenzie Funk
National Magazine Award finalist McKenzie Funk is a founding member of Deca and the author of Windfall, named a book of the year by The New Yorker, Mother Jones, Salon, and Amazon and the winner of a 2015 PEN Literary Award. Mac's writing appears in Harper's, National Geographic, Rolling Stone, Outside, and The New York Times Magazine. An Open Society Fellow, he speaks five languages and is a native of the Pacific Northwest, where he lives with his wife and sons.