China: The World’s Green Design Lab

World’s first ‘forest city’, Photo Credit: Stefano Boeri Architetti

In a country where more than 1 million people die every year from health complications related to air quality, it is no guarded secret that China has a major problem with air pollution. The internet is saturated with depressing photos of mask-toting Chinese people navigating through dense urban haze; but the statistics regarding major Chinese cities’ air quality is even grimmer than the popular depictions of Beijing or Chengdu.

An hourly-recording of air quality between April 2008 to April 2014 reveals that Beijing’s annual concentration of tiny particulate matter (or PM2.5) averaged to 99 micrograms per cubic meter with an AQI rating of “Unhealthy.” Anecdotally, that means on an average day, a resident of Beijing could awaken to a clear morning sky (pictured left), or to a world blotted out by pollution (pictured right).

Beijing (left taken Sep 27, 2015, right taken Dec 1, 2015), Photo Credit: BeijingAirNow via CNN

While the collected data and health concerns are alarming, the Chinese government is not idle. At the beginning of 2017, while the 45th President of the United States began to silence the EPA and formulate the American withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, China announced it will allocate 2.5 trillion yuan ($361 billion) to fund renewable energy by 2020 — translating to $72 billion per year. The 2020 plan ultimately aims to make renewable power half of the country’s new electricity generation. This includes the installation of wind, solar, hydro, and nuclear power facilities.

However, beyond explored means of combating pollution and climate change, China is also positioning itself to be the forerunner of future green technology. More so than any other country in the world, present-day China is replete with creative green-lit ideas and construction projects. The following highlights are just a few of the innovative technological solutions and large-scale green energy shifts being tested in the Middle Kingdom.

Liuzhou Forest City

Photo Credit: Stefano Boeri Architetti

As shown artistically-rendered at the top of the article, Liuzhou Forest City will be the world’s first pollution-eating neighborhood. The 342-acre site, situated north of Liuzhou in the Guangxi region of China, was commissioned by the city’s urban planning department and designed by Stefano Boeri Architetti. Construction for the project broke ground in 2016 and is expected to be completed by 2020.

The green project will create an energy self-sufficient neighborhood for 30,000 inhabitants— including housing, offices, two schools and a hospital — entirely covered by plants. There will be roughly 1 million plants of over 100 species on site, including 40,000 trees. The architecture studio behind Forest City states that the development will absorb almost 10,000 tons of CO2 and 57 tons of pollutants per year, along with producing approximately 900 tons of oxygen. This will be achieved all while the mini-city runs on geo-thermal and solar energy.

The Forest City in Shijiazhuang Masterplan, Photo Credit: Stefano Boeri Architetti

While this innovative design for urban dwelling is not unprecedented (SBA was also behind the Vertical Forest residential building in Milan, Italy), Liuzhou Forest City marks the first green-designed district ever constructed. And lead architect Stefano Boeri does not anticipate stopping with the Liuzhou project. His vision is to create a blueprint for countless Chinese cities to implement, following Liuzhou with an even larger masterplan in one of China’s most polluted cities: Shijiazhuang (proposal pictured above).

These self-sufficient eco-cities would assist the Chinese government’s renewable energy plan in cutting its CO2 emissions. As China urbanizes at a staggering pace with an estimated 1 billion people to live in its cities by 2030, clean energy solutions are vital. The government, however, is not just content with local designs. It is testing renewable energy solutions at an even larger scale.

278,000 Square Miles Off Coal

Xining, Qinghai, Photo Credit: http://thecptrackers.com/

Between June 17 to June 23, 2017, the entire province of Qinghai, China operated entirely on renewable energy. The State Grid Corporation conducted the trial to determine if the province’s electrical grid could manage without burning fossil fuels. As of May 2017, Qinghai’s power grid had a total installed capacity of 23.4 million kilowatts (kW), around 82.8% of which came from solar, wind and especially hydro power. Due to China’s heavy investment of renewable energy infrastructure in Qinghai, the test was a definite success.

During the trial time, 1.1 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity was used without reported system failures. To look at those figures from another lens, powering such electrical use with coal would require burning 535,000 tons of the carbonaceous rock. In a country where huge swaths of the population rarely see a clear blue sky through the blankets of smog, this kind of test provides a optimistic peek into a coal-less future.

In a public statement regarding the trial, Han Ti, the vice-manager of the Qinghai Electrical Power Corporation said:

“This is the first time in China that a province will run solely on renewable energy for a long period of time. We believe it will raise awareness of emission reduction and promote the development of clean energy nationwide”
Solar station in Delingha, Qinghai, Photo Credit: ZUMAPRESS via Mother Jones

The success of the State Grid Corporation’s test, however, must be considered in the context of its location. Qinghai is a vast province — almost twice as large as the state of California — but contains a population hovering under 6 million, roughly 6.5 times less than that of California’s. Over one-third of the 6 million live in the provincial capital, Xining, and unlike the urbanites of Eastern China, the scattered herders and remote villages in the high Tibetan Plateau are not heavy consumers of electricity. Therefore, the demand for power is far less intense than that of say Guangdong Province, which boasts a population of 104 million.

That being said, the excitement surrounding the trial has less to do with the individual accomplishment than it does with the future economic potential of exporting renewable energy.

Qinghai is an excellent location for cultivating renewable energy. The province contains the headwaters of the Yangtze, Yellow, and Mekong Rivers, which gives it ample opportunities for new hydro-electric facilities. There are already 10 major hydro-electric power stations operating on the Yellow River just within Qinghai, with 3 additional stations under construction and a fourth planned. To clarify and contrast the significance of this assembly speed, the last major hydro-electric facility that was built in the United States opened in 1981. It is only one of seven major facilities.

China’s blazingly fast construction of renewable energy stations is directly related to the government’s financial decisions. The state has begun to invest heavily in green power both at home and abroad. As part of its 2020 Plan, the Chinese government is channeling money into solar infrastructure. By May 2017, Qinghai alone had a solar capacity of 6.8 million kilowatts, part of which came from the continued growth of the world’s largest solar farm (Longyangxia Dam Solar Park now contains over 4 million solar panels). From 2016 to the first quarter of 2017, China installed a jaw-dropping solar capacity of 42 gigawatts. In the past year, its rate of solar installation was more than double that of the U.S.’s, and accounted for nearly half of the total added capacity worldwide.

The sheer amount of money China invests in renewable energy and the commitment it shows in running trials like that of Qinghai demonstrate the government sees the ‘big picture’ shifts that must occur in the future. Taking action at such a large scale will undoubtably have a dramatic impact on China’s noxious air pollution levels. But technological solutions to reduce air pollution do not have to arise from nation-sized designs.

Smog Free Bicycles

Photo Credit: Studio Roosegaarde

For artist and design studio founder Daan Roosegaarde, fighting air pollution in an innovative way can be done at the individual consumer’s level.

Studio Roosegaarde, the team behind the controversial Smog Free Tower in Beijing, announced this year a partnership with Chinese bike-sharing startup OFO to create and launch a fleet of smog-eating bicycles.

The concept behind the bike underscores the individual’s role in reducing their carbon footprint: a front facing module rests atop the handlebars, which inhales air particulates, filters them, and the releases clean air around the cyclist. The cyclist is, in fact, symbolically cleaning the dirty air which their modern lifestyle gave birth to in the first place.

Roosegaarde intends for his creation to reduce the number of cars on the road in major Chinese cities, unclogging traffic congestion and lessening the impact of vehicular air pollution. In an interview with Inhabitat, he states:

“Beijing was a cycling city 10 or 12 years ago, and that completely disappeared because everybody wanted a car, and everybody now is in a traffic jam and it’s polluted. But the bicycle is a powerful cultural icon. So we want to bring back the bicycle and upgrade it… in the fight against car pollution.”

The Chinese government is also directly tackling the auto pollution problem by building the infrastructure for the burgeoning electric car industry (in 2016, China sold 5 times more electric vehicles than the United States). But Roosegaarde thinks approaching the issue at a personal level draws more people into solving the air pollution crisis.

“You are changing mentality,” he states in his interview, referring to his creations.

Challenges Ahead

Coal-fired power plant in Shanxi, China, Photo Credit: Getty Images via The New York Times

The changes in China’s mindset in recent years can be easily seen from its policy decisions, such as setting a cap on coal and canceling 103 planned coal power facilities, including several already under construction. This move eliminates 120 gigawatts-worth of future coal capacity, meeting China’s intended 2020 coal cap of 1,100 gigawatts; however, the figure still represents a coal capacity three times that of the United States’, and will comprise 55% of China’s total power output.

What makes this insidious is the linked impact burning coal has on the populace’s health. International research from 2016 found that 40% of the most dangerous pollutants in China’s air trace back to burning coal. Curbing the development of new facilities will only prevent the air quality from worsening, not ameliorate the current situation.

Some would argue that this continued plume of coal-fired capacity is collateral of China’s light-speed economic growth: in other words, the country developed so quickly with non-renewable power sources that it is now caught struggling to shed the repercussions. Bountiful availability of coal in western China makes it an immediately cost-effective source of energy during a period where there is high demand for power infrastructure. Thus, China is faced with the dilemma of needing to both meet its power needs while reducing the copious amount of air pollution that envelops its cities and contributes to global climate change.

Amidst questions as to whether it can “lead the world” on climate change and green energy, China is taking the right steps to correct its own course. In order to pull the plug on greenhouse gas contributions, it must first build the necessary renewable capacity to power its country. The four-year $361 billion investment, experimental trials, and creative planned developments are all unprecedented measures towards that goal. Time will tell whether China sets the example of a green revolution for the rest of the world, but as of now, it is certainly the world’s green design lab.

Photo Credit: Stefano Boeri Architetti