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Tianjin: China’s New Ecocity? January 16, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology.
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Depending on who you listen to China is positioning itself as a world leader in renewable energy and sustainable building.  I say “depending” because a closer examination of China’s efforts reveals a lot left to be desired.  Dongtan, China’s first newsworthy attempt at an ecocity, was scheduled to open in 2010 but has been pushed back due to numerous delays amid charges of corruption.  In addition the project raised more than a few eyebrows for planning to build its “ecocity” on the site of a wetland the serves as a migration site for endangered birds, not exactly eco-friendly.  So when I hear news that China is proposing to build another sustainable city I’m immediately skeptical.

On the surface this Tianjin project sounds promising.  A joint venture with a Singapore based company the city will have an extensive light rail network, a variety of landscapes for the eventual 350,000 citizens to live and a variety of recycling and renewable energy systems.  From the pictures provided the design of the buildings seem both beautiful and innovative.  All in all an excellent vision.

Unfortunately China has a history of visions that quickly turn into nightmares.  The city of Ordos is a perfect example; a gleaming picture of modernity built to house over 1 million residence when completed.  Only one problem.  Nobody has moved there.  The city lies largely vacant even while construction continues.

The problem lies largely with China’s economic system.  Despite all the talk of GDP and passing Japan as the world’s second largest economy in many ways China is a paper tiger.  Building projects in much of the country are used to boost GDP rather than provide needed infrastructure as the incentive for local governors is to present a strong economic picture, rather than build a foundation for future wealth.  In addition it’s well known that the key to China’s current prosperity is an export driven market built around cheap products combined with currency manipulation.  As China’s prosperity grows and a stronger middle class demands higher wages and better quality goods it will become more and more difficult to maintain the advantage it has built for itself.  Of course this is also ignoring the negative effects continued automation will have on low cost jobs and goods.

In addition China’s supposed devotion to environmentalism seems more like green-washing than a sincere belief.  Yes, it now boasts the second highest wind power production behind the USA and installs more turbines each year than anyone but it also boats the highest production of coal plants in the world.

None of this is to imply that China isn’t a strong economy or that its renewable energy sector doesn’t have potential, only that appearances can be deceiving.  In the case of Tianjin a wait and see attitude would be wise to see if this becomes another shiny, gilded boondoggle.