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U.S.-China Collaboration on Sustainable Urbanization

This post originally appeared on the ChinaFAQs website.

A group of government officials from China traveled on a study tour in the United States last week. The tour, hosted by the World Resources Institute, focused on low carbon development. The delegation was led by Director General Su Wei of the Department of Climate Change from China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), who is China’s chief negotiator on climate change and a key decision maker for low-carbon development initiatives. The tour passed through WRI’s office in Washington, D.C., to conduct a workshop on low-carbon development. The event began with a signing of a memorandum of understanding between NDRC, China’s main planning agency, and WRI to work together on low carbon city development and related issues. Su Wei signed the MOU with WRI Board Vice Chair Harriet “Hattie” Babbitt. “We welcome today’s dialogue that will increase our mutual understanding of the issues and opportunities to make more sustainable, livable cities, as we usher a transition toward a low-carbon future,” said Babbitt. In his keynote speech, Director General Su Wei outlined both the progress that China has made over the past decade, and the new steps it is taking to pursue a climate-conscious path to development with its 12th Five Year Plan for Development and its recent commitments in international climate negotiations.

“The government leadership has taken the climate change challenge very seriously,” said Su, stressing that a significant part of the Plan is “focused on the concrete practical actions in order to address that challenge.”

China currently faces many environmental challenges, including mounting concern over air quality, greenhouse gas emissions, and scarcity of water, energy and other resources. Sustainable city design has the potential to address many of these concerns simultaneously, and is a particularly important topic right now, as China’s urban population is expected to grow to 1 billion people by 2030. This means over 350 million people, more than the entire population of the United States, will move from the Chinese countryside into cities. This ongoing urbanization presents both challenges and opportunities to create a sustainable pathway, including addressing climate change amid increased resource demands, and also potential for gains in efficiency.

“Sustainability in China, and arguably for the world, hangs in the balance, in how Chinese cities are designed,” said Clayton Lane, Global Lead of WRI’s Sustainable Cities Initiative. “China has a remarkable opportunity here to not repeat the mistakes made in the West.”

How China manages this urbanization can be instructive for other developing countries, with profound implications for global progress on climate change.

“The most important task in the Five Year Plan period is to transform the way we develop our economy in China, and to try to build a climate-friendly as well as a resource-conservation society,” said Director General Su Wei. “One of the guiding policies in the Five Year Plan is green and low carbon development; in order to materialize that low carbon concept, we have set very concrete targets for both energy intensity and carbon intensity.”

This MOU signing represents a key step forward and the growing recognition of the importance of this issue. WRI will be expanding its work in sustainable development in China with a goal of improving the lives of millions of people. In December 2011, Caterpillar announced a five-year, $12.5 million grant to support WRI sustainable cities work in China, India and Brazil.

“At Caterpillar, we strive to help build a world in which people’s basic requirements are fulfilled in a way that is environmentally sustainable,” said Clay Thompson, Director of Government Affairs, calling the initiative “a natural extension of that goal.”

The workshop included panel discussions on low-carbon development and cap-and-trade, market approaches to emissions reductions, involving regional pilot initiatives. Experts from WRI and the Chinese delegation shared experiences from their work.

In Q&A sessions throughout the day, Su Wei joined other members of the delegation and experts from WRI to address questions about China’s recent consideration of a nationwide cap on energy consumption and a resource tax. “In China we are not just talking about climate change, we are actually acting on climate change. We are serious about what we are talking about… We mean what we say,” Su Wei said.

The study tour was comprised of a group of high-level government officials from China’s NDRC and four provinces and cities. Seeking to exchange ideas on low-carbon city models and approaches to sustainable urbanization, the Chinese delegation visited Boston, New York City, Washington D.C., San Francisco, and Los Angeles. The delegation met with government officials, and leaders from multilateral institutions, business, academia, and foundations to discuss topics relating to low-carbon development, including sub-national cooperation, carbon finance, carbon trading programs, urban planning, transport, and international climate action.

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