Can China’s “new urban strategy” save its cities from the looming climate crisis?


China will have to be more precise in defining its climate plans.

Lei Han – Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This is the 117th article in the series – The Chronicles of China.

Read the articles here.


from China urbanization rate was among the highest in the world. During the 40 years of reforms, it rose from 19.9% ​​to 58.5%, with 46% of the population moving from rural to urban areas. This resulted in what is called urbanization with Chinese characteristics defined by the three words: exit, mobility and entry. This meant “getting out of the rural provinces”, “moving the workforce to industrialized centers” and ensuring “the easy entry of migrants and services to enable them to live”.

However, over the years, several large urban centers like Beijing and Shanghai, which consume a lot of coal, have come under heavy criticism for poor air quality, water scarcity and rising threats from the level of water. ‘sea water.

Recently a paper written by Guangzhou Chinese scholars in peer-reviewed journalsBorders in sustainable cities’ attracted the attention of the whole world. Document titled “Keeping Track of Progress and Reduction Targets for Greenhouse Gas Emissions in 167 Cities Around the World” highlights how 23 Chinese cities account for the top 15% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emitters in the world, representing 52% of total global emissions. This study highlights that Chinese cities with high emissions per capita are generally highly urbanized, and particularly where manufacturing and transportation activities are booming.

A climate mapping exercise conducted in Chinese cities by a global environmental NGO in July 2021, highlighted how “areas undergoing rapid urbanization are experiencing a sharp increase in risk.” But they are not as well documented or funded to tackle climate risk. [1] The exercise directly links the risk to growing city centers where the population density is the highest and where a high level of economic activity is concentrated.

This study, which deduced from 2014 Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, pointed out that the temperature rise in parts of Beijing could exceed 2.6 ° C by 2100. He also noted how climate change would lengthen summers by 28 days in Beijing, from 24 to 28 days in Shanghai and over 40 days in Guangzhou-Shenzhen. He deduced that parts of the Shanghai and Guangzhou-Shenzhen regions would experience an increase of more than 25% in extreme rainfall, and the Guangzhou-Shenzhen region would experience more drought.

Aware of the pressure that such uncontrolled urbanization has exerted on the natural and built environment of these regions having an impact on the climate, the 14e Five-year plan of China which was revealed in 2020, introduced a “new urbanization plan”. These plans which are drawn up every five years are social and economic development initiatives issued by the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) since 1953. The highlights of these new initiatives are:

  1. Build new modern metropolitan areas and promote the interconnection of infrastructure and mutual recognition and sharing of public services with existing megalopolises.
  2. Improve governance mechanisms for rural migrant populations in cities, such as housing, insurance and livelihood reforms, reducing existing restrictions.
  3. Create integrated urban agglomerations that optimize internal spatial structures, build ecological barriers and form multicenter, multilevel and multino-node urban agglomerations.
  4. Building “new types” of low-carbon, environmentally friendly cities in terms of sustainable infrastructure, built environment and transport that adapt to the climate with adequate green funding.
  5. Innovation in governance through a digital approach with networks and online platforms for community care, logistics and distribution, convenience stores and supermarkets, housekeeping and property management, and other services .

Although these measures are useful for decentralizing cities and moving its economic and manufacturing bases away from its megalopolises, China will have to be more precise in defining its climate plans for each of the 23 Chinese cities if it is to meet its commitment of a CO2 emissions peak before 2030 and reach carbon neutrality by 2060. So far, only a few cities have aligned their climate targets with the plan.

The current new urbanization plan takes a different and more inclusive view of migrants in cities when it comes to their livelihoods. But it will have to take the interaction of climate and migration more seriously. The last plan, the 13th five-year plan (2016⎯20) while emphasizing urbanization, discriminated against elderly migrants. It aimed to replace the old batch of migrants with the up-and-coming, ambitious, next-generation workers in mega-cities, asking them to return to their villages and rural hometowns that they had left due to climate vulnerabilities.

While all of this is important, the crux of China’s climate problem lies in the consumption of coal. As China is known to be the world’s largest manufacturer and consumer of electric vehicles, and electric transportation is an important component of its “new type” cities, it will need to keep in mind that clean energy is being used. . It must eliminate the use of any fossil fuel-powered vehicle and invest in low-carbon materials for its transit.

In recent years, we have seen efforts coming from sub-regional city governments in China. Beijing is assessing the feasibility of setting aside low-emission zones, Wuhan is leading by example as a sponge city to tackle its water scarcity issues, and Hubei is combining solar power with agriculture. There are several others who work on energy, transport, housing and land issues.

According to Chinese climate experts, NGOs, central government and local government all have different understandings and different levels of awareness of climate governance. The success of the Chinese program will lie in a centralized effort to align China’s 687 cities with the country’s climate goals.


[1] Greenpeace East Asia, Press Note, July 14, 2021.


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