Sunday, February 20, 2011

China National Model Cities for Environmental Protection

China has conducted some interesting experiments in environmental policy initiatives and innovations. In 1989, the Urban Environmental Quality Examination System (UEQES) began providing annual assessments of the environmental performance of major Chinese cities. Then, in 1997, the National Model City (NMC) for Environmental Protection program was initiated. While the ability to acquire foreign investment in environmentally-friendly technologies has contributed to the naming of cities as NMCs, relocation of heavily-polluting industries outside of coastal cities to gain NMC points has merely displaced many environmental problems elsewhere. China’s overall environmental protection capacity will not be solely determined by NMC awards and its credibility will continue to be hurt by technical weaknesses.

To attain status as a NMC, a set of specific environmental and development targets must be met. Among these are metrics of how the city handles energy supply, manages waste, preserves green space, funds environmental protection, and rates among surveys of its citizens1. To date, dozens of Chinese cities and several urban districts have achieved NMC status2, demonstrating Chinese local officals’ capacity to develop their economies while protecting their cities’ environments.

Shenyang is an example of an impressive success in the NMC program. It was one of China’s most polluted cities in 19841. In a dramatic turnaround, officials began upgrading or relocating downtown factories and building wastewater treatment plants starting in 2001. By 2003, Shenyang had increased its good air quality days by 84% and by 2004 it had achieved NMC status1. With the prestige of the award, the local mayor was then able to attract the International Horticultural Exposition in 2006 and entice further foreign investment1.

International cooperation is a key part of the success of China’s NMC program. Japanese banks provided some funding for three initial test cities and Japanese government agencies gave technical assistance1. Partnership with the European Union has helped Nanjing develop low-carbon industries3. Singapore’s Surbana Urban Planning Group is developing plans for the striking new Tianjin Eco-City to be completed by 20204. The UK’s Arup Group is designing the proposed Dongtan Eco-City outside of Shanghai5.

Serious problems with the NMC system, however, have been identified. Zhongshan was able to win NMC status, in part, because officials moved environmentally-polluting industries outside of the city’s evaluation area1. Furthermore, it seems China’s air pollution emissions are not even measured, but rather estimated, and have the potential for compromised data1. General lack of transparency and few opportunities for citizen participation in the decision-making process contribute to the weakness of China’s environmental policies.

China’s NMC system is a progressive environmental policy idea utilizing strong international assistance to improve urban environments, but technical weaknesses bring China’s overall environmental protection capacity into question.

~Mark Bremer, Green Explored Contributor

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[1] Economy, Elizabeth(2006) 'Environmental governance: the emerging economic dimension', Environmental Politics, 15: 2, 171 — 18

[2] China State Environmental Protection Administration, National Model Cities for Environmental Protection

[3] ChinaDaily.com “Nanjing: Host city is investors’ favorite”

[4] Inhabitat.com “Tianjin Eco City is a Futuristic Green Landscape for 350,000 Residents”

[5] SustainableCities.dk “Dongtan: the world’s first large-scale eco-city?”

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