A Chinese worker arrives at the Beijing Capital Steel plant
Cities need energy-intensive inputs such as steel © Getty Images

By the time you finish reading this article, more than 400 Chinese people will have left the countryside and put down new roots in a city.

China’s cities, which already house a tenth of the world’s population, are swelling every minute. It is the largest migration in human history, and is a driving force behind China’s demand for everything from steel to sugar to electricity.

Perhaps more surprisingly, cities have become a key front in the country’s fight against pollution and efforts to shift toward more sustainable growth.

China’s rapid economic development has been accompanied by chronic environmental degradation and worsening pollution – which now poses a serious threat to human health and social stability, according to officials. As China’s leaders work to change that growth model, cities are at the forefront of their efforts.

“We should not follow the high-intensity model of western cities,” says Han Wenke, director of the Energy Research Institute under China’s economic planning agency, referring mainly to energy consumption. “The faster we urbanise, the faster we consume …We have to take the constraints of energy and resources into account.” Urban migration is drastically changing patterns of consumption and behaviour: China’s city dwellers use three times as much electricity as rural residents, eat 10 times as much sugar, and require vastly more infrastructure as they go about their daily lives. One official estimates that for every person who moves to a city, the government spends Rmb100,000 ($16,000) to build additional roads, bridges, utilities and other public goods – which all require energy-intensive inputs like steel or cement.

Policy makers have tried to guide cities toward a more sustainable path using policies that range from carbon emission targets and incentives for localised solar power, to caps on energy use and huge investments in public transportation. Last month Hu Jintao, then China’s top leader, pledged to launch a “revolution in energy production and consumption,” and said that urbanisation must be balanced with “ecological security”.

China’s biggest cities, like Beijing and Shanghai, have taken the lead in many of these efforts. To reduce air pollution and carbon emissions, Beijing (pop. 20m) is phasing out coal-fired power plants within the city’s urban core, replacing them with cleaner-burning natural gas power plants.

In central and western China, taxi fleets run on natural gas instead of petrol because it is cheaper and cleaner. And many municipalities are sponsoring “eco-cities” built from the ground up and based on conservation principles.

Despite the myriad efforts to make cities greener, progress has been slow because China’s broader economic and political structure still rewards local officials for high investment and fast growth, rather than for sustainability. The economic boom of the past three decades was fuelled by high investment in fixed assets, a model that birthed sprawling, inefficient cities full of buildings built so poorly they barely last for 20 years.

“Think about who China’s cities are built for,” muses a municipal official based in Fujian province. “They aren’t built for people. They are built as political accomplishments.”

One result of this is the giant street grids that make all Chinese cities feel eerily similar – and make them unwalkable for pedestrians.

Chinese officials point out that another challenge is who will pay for policies that lessen a city’s environmental impact. Sewage treatment, efficient rubbish disposal, and clean energy sources can all be costly. “Someone might build a new sewage plant to meet regulatory requirements, but then they might shut it down when the bosses are not around to save on costs and energy,” says Xia Guang, head of policy research at the Ministry of Environmental Protection.

For this reason, achieving urban sustainability – and succeeding in broader environmental efforts – depend on transforming the economic growth model and rewarding officials for sustainability as well as GDP growth, according to officials and academics.

Henry M. Paulson, founder of the Paulson Institute and former US Treasury secretary, says building sustainable cities in China will require a “new model of municipal finance” and that the urbanisation process can only be managed well if it is accompanied by economic reform.

“There needs to be an effort to build sound, long-term economic frameworks that really recognise the scarcity of our natural resources,” he says.

Whether in the US or in China, what is needed, he says, is “a growth model that lets us increase prosperity without exhausting our natural resources or undermining the environment”.

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