As China’s economy, cities, and industry continue to grow so does the fear that they will not be able to catch up to sustainable developments in the West. But China’s cities might be farther ahead than previously thought. In November 2010, Urban China Initiative (UCI), an NGO jointly founded by McKinsey & Company, Columbia University, and Tsinhua University, published the results of a five-month study evaluating the sustainability of 112 cities in China.
The study is a first run for the Urban Sustainability Index (USI), a measurement tool created to fill in the gap between existing tools that are either mostly theory or focus on national-level statistics. USI “is designed to measure relative performance over time of Chinese cities across a common set of sustainability categories.” USI uses five broad categories to define sustainability with 18 individual indicators that evaluate the environmental stability, the services offered by each city, and each city’s resource efficiency.
The report defines the five categories as follows:
- Basic Needs: Access to safe water, sufficient living space, and adequate healthcare and education are priority needs that help sustain an urban population.
- Resource Efficiency: Efficient use of water and energy and effective waste recycling contribute to functional resource management, providing benefits in both urban and rural areas.
- Environmental Health: Lessening exposure to harmful pollutants and heightening waste management efficiency helps induce cleaner urban environments.
- Built Environment: Increased livability and efficiency of communities comes with equitable access to green space and public transportation, as well as dense and efficient buildings.
- Commitment to Sustainability: More staff and financial resources brought against sustainability challenges suggests how vigorously city governments are meeting their commitments to implement national and local policies and standards.
For the study, UCI evaluated data on the cities from 2005 to 2008 and compared them with standards in the developed world. Although UCI found that the cities were developing in almost all of the Index’s 18 indicators, they also found that China’s cities still lag behind the developed world in areas such as access to doctors, electricity consumption, and industrial sulfur dioxide discharges.
The following are some highlights from the study:
The study found that almost all 112 cities experienced improvements in access to basic needs; however, there was a great divide between the top-performing cities and the lowest-performing ones. The study predicts that this gap will continue to expand without increased resources. UCI found that cities generally improved their teacher to student ratio with many even equal to or better than other developed nations. Regarding healthcare, almost every city increased the number of doctors per capita; however, the gap grew between those cities in the top and bottom quintiles. On average there were 2.8 doctors to every 1,000 citizens by 2008 (up from 2.5 in 2005). This number compares well with other developing nations though it does not bring China’s cities up to the level of developed nations in the West. Living space per capita and access to water supply also increased across the board in the cities evaluated.
According to UCI’s findings, “China’s cities remained relatively static when considering resource efficiency.” The increase of heavy industry caused electricity consumption to rise across the board. Using 149 gigawatt hours of electricity per billion RMB of production, China’s urban electricity usage towers over other metropolises such as Mexico City with 10 gigawatt hours, New York with 11, and Jakarta with 67. On a more positive note, access to water increased while demand decreased with people using an average of 32,500 liters in 2008 compared to 33,000 in 2005. Although cities ranking lowest were significantly behind those at the top, the cities represented in the study fared better than the average consumption in Germany (45,000), France (58,000), and the US (95,000).
UCI reports that China’s air quality has improved although emissions continue to be extremely high and far beyond the healthy levels set by the World Health Organization (WHO). According to the study, sulfur dioxide emissions fell by 13 percent from 2005 to 2008. “Considered in proportion to economic activity, emissions almost halved, going from 2,600 tons per billion renminbi of production to 1,700 tons,” the study reports. While this is considerable, the study also reports, that concentrations of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter all fell; however only 20 percent of China’s cities meet the WHO’s standards for sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide. Other countries have made greater strides in decreasing their emissions through stronger policy initiatives and new technology, but UCI believes that China will follow suit quickly and has even done so since the study ended.
China’s densely populated cities encourage sustainable development, according to UCI, as high density encourages conservation of energy use. Combined with China’s developed public transportation systems, population density results in less need for automobiles, which contributes to lower emissions. UCI found that almost 100 of the cities in their study averaged 4,000 people per square kilometer compared to 1,800 in New York, 3,300 in Paris, 3,700 in Berlin, and 5,700 in Sao Paulo. The population and density of China’s cities is only expected to grow, which UCI predicts “should generate ever greater economies of scale, improving the case for investment in public transport and smart grids which will be vital to the future sustainability of China’s cities.”
UCI noted three overall conclusions from their study:
- Cities with strong absolute performance do well across many dimensions, not just on a small set of indicators.
- City leaders can improve city sustainability at any stage of economic development without impacting growth.
- A significant set of Chinese cities are becoming more sustainable while also achieving above average rates of economic growth.
The Index also showed that a city’s wealth and degree of sustainable growth showed hardly any correlation, leading to the conclusion that policy and leadership are the fundamental factors contributing to sustainable development.
Committing to Sustainable Development
Overall, UCI found that China’s cities have increased funding to make their cities more environmentally sustainable by approximately one-third in the past several years; however, there is a danger that the lower ranking cities may continue to lag far below the well performing ones. And while there is positive movement, the majority of Chinese cities still need significant help to begin showing positive development. This means creating more government policies that support sustainable development and adopting initiatives that unite decision makers from various branches of government and industry. Without a doubt, a solid commitment to sustainable development is the only way for China’s cities to continue moving forward. With several cities well on the way, it seems that it will be only a matter of time before more cities are able to meet international standards.
To read the complete study by Urban China Initiative, click here.