Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Is Chinese cities' development ecologically sustainable?

Figure 1: Shanghai bustling Nanjing Road (REUTER)

On May 2012, the PRC government announced that 51.3% of the Chinese population now was living in urban areas. Even if this figure is somewhat questionable given migrant workers, now China is an urban-dominated society.

At the same time, the terms "harmonious society",  "resource-saving society" and "ecological civilization" are constantly employed at the highest levels of the Chinese government, highlighting its commitment to sustainable development.

But after the explosion of urbanization over the past 30 years, maybe it is now necessary to assess its dramatic effects on the environment and see whether this type of development is still sustainable and should be modified on the horizon 2030?

Ecological Footprint and Urbanization

Everywhere mass movement of people from farms and rural villages toward cities  has been the trademark of human development. Today around 75% of industrialized country’s population is living in towns and cities. During 2008, for the first time in history, the proportion of the world’s population who lived in urban areas reached 50%, symbolizing the beginning of a new urban era.

Even if China’s economical development expressed in GDP (PPP) is lagging behind European Union (EU) or North America (NA), its 2008 footprint as established by the WWF is the biggest while its land’s biocapacity is similar to EU and smaller than NA. As a result its ecological deficit in 2008 far exceeds its land’s biocapacity which defines the “human carrying” capacity of its habitat (see following Figure 2):

Figure 2: Footprints and biocapacities by selected countries as established in 2012 WWF's Living Planet report

How does a big city impact the footprint of a country?  If we consider Hong Kong ecological footprint we have an extremely narrow biocapacity base and a huge footprint: its ecological deficit is at least 200 times bigger than its biocapacity.

Big cities are similar to “entropic black holes” or nodes of energy and material consumption. They are absorbing food, energy, water and material inputs from far away hinterlands, their only outputs being waste or pollution (see Why cities cannot be sustainable and why they are key to sustainability? fromWilliam Rees and Mathis Wackernagel 1996).

In China the country's rate of urban versus total population increased from 17.4% in 1978 to 51.3% in 2012 over 33 years only, a scale unprecedented in human history. It is predicted that by 2030, the urbanization ratio will reach 65%, and that the population in various cities and towns will increase by 200 millions.

If we extend the Chinese footprint and biocapacity curve it means that around 2030 - all other issues being business as usual- China would have the same footprint than in 2008 NA and EU combined, with an ecological deficit more than 3 times its biocapacity.

Surely an entirely sustainable big city is pure utopia. No city or urban region can achieve sustainability on its own territory because the ecological hinterland necessary for supporting a high-density human settlement never coincides with its geographic location. But sustainable cities are an urgent issue given the enormous leverage they may have in the quest for global worldwide sustainability.  

The real issue is whether the spatial concentration pattern and high population of Chinese cities make them more or less sustainable than other type of settlement? Or whether it is necessary to control in the future the frenetic urbanization and cities’ development in China due to the enormous implications they may have on the ecological footprint of the country not to mention the planet?

China spatial distribution of cities and towns emphasizes its export-oriented development model

Unsuitable  regions for human habitation amount to 52% of China’s land. They are distributed westward from the “Tengchong (Yunnan) - Aihui  (Heilongjiang)” line (see following figure 3) with deserts, highlands etc.. Cities are mostly located eastward from this line in East coastal provinces. In the past “China proper” was a term used to express a distinction between the core and frontier regions. This core region where are located the biggest cities is associated with the Han Chinese, the majority ethnic group and with the extent of the Chinese language(s).

There are 34 province-level administrative divisions with 4 different organization types:
  •   24 Provinces strictly speaking (100,000 to 200,000km2),
  •   4 Municipalities: Shanghai, Beijing, Tianjin, Chongqing smaller (10,000 to 80,000km2) and densely populated,
  •  2 Special Administrative Regions outward oriented: Hong Kong and Macau much smaller (<1,000km2),
  •  4 Autonomous Regions vast and sparsely populated: Xianjian, Qinghai, Inner Mongolia and Tibet.

Figure 3: China's 6 central regions and 34 province-level administrations

Based on the 2010 census, if we look at the greatest cities (>100,000), we can identify 170 Prefecture or County-level cities which population is around  360 mil or 26% of Chinese population.

Among them there are 27 metropolitan areas which populations are greater than 3.5 mil , with a total population of 190 mil   (12% of China) (see figure 4). These leading metropolis are located in “China proper” and next to the coast. Their development in proximity to port facilities emphasizes the export-oriented development model implemented over the last 30 years.

In this east costal China there are three major economic cities' clusters which are:

  • Shanghai and the Yangtze River Delta with the fastest growth rate is one of the most populous regions in China; the delta has an area of 210,700 km2 (2.2% of China) and a permanent population of 148 mil (11.1% of China). 
  • Hong Kong and the Pearl River Delta is an important economic pilot region where the economic reform, the opening-up policy was introduced earlier; the “Greater Pearl River Delta" has a total of 181,000 km2 (1.9% of China) and a permanent population of 104 mil.
  • Beijing- Tianjin- Hebei area covers  216,000 km2 (2.25% of China) with a population of 100 mil; the so-called “Beijing-Tianjin Corridor” is the central area of the Bohai sea agglomeration and the political scientific and artistic center of China.

Figure 4: China's main metropolis >3.5 mil

Currently China has formed on its east cost a tight coastal ribbon with high economic development and huge concentration of population. From 2001 to 2008, the total GDP of these 11 coastal provinces had increased by an annual rate of 10% reaching 57% of the total national GDP.
The coastal population is currently 554 mil. Though China’s coastal area constitutes only 13% of its total landmass, more than 40% of the Chinese population now lives in this area. The region is responsible for 90% of China’s imports and exports.

The hidden side of cities’ development

Rural migrant workers

When viewing Chinese cities census it is uneasy to disentangle permanent from temporary residents. The hukou system household registration and control of migrant workers originating from ancient China was maintained by the Communist Party. The present partially reformed hukou system contributes to China's rural and urban disparity.

Rural migrants may spend only the Chinese new year in their family village but have to be accommodated in various urban areas most of the time! At the end of 2009, Tianjin municipality population was 12.3 mil, of which 9.8 mil were residential holders of Tianjin hukou (permanent registration) and 2.5mil (20.3%) were migrant workers.

Since 1978 Chinese rural-to-urban migration had been a dominant source of urbanization growth, the driving force being rural–urban income gap. Most rural migration takes place across provinces, from inland rural areas to coastal urban areas. In 2009, the total number of rural migrant workers was 230mil  (cfUN State of China Cities 2010-2011).

Overloading of housing and social services, crime and congestion

Like many developing countries, unemployment and poverty problems have begun to emerge in China as a result of rapid urbanization, along with other problems such as overloading of housing and social services, increased crime, pollution and congestion.

After 2008 in the wake of the global financial crisis it seems to be the right time for adjusting industrial structure and redistributing migrant population. Due to the influence of the crisis, demands for laborers have declined, long-distance migration and convergence of population in coastal areas have abated. 

Now, the priority should be placed on strengthening the development of medium and small cities or towns. The employment and settlement of the eligible rural migrant population in cities and towns should be regarded as the main task in promoting urbanization.

         Land, sea and atmospheric pollutions

China is one of the most polluted countries in the world.  China State of the Environment Reports from 2009 to 2010  - each report being published yearly- show that the situation far from being under control is getting more and more severe. We shall relate these reports in a next post. Here are some illustrative items:

  • The ambient air quality : sulfur dioxide emissions are increasing by 20% on the last 5 years and around one third of the key cities are very dangerously polluted as regard WHO guidelines.
  • The proportion of cities with serious acid rain on annual average pH values of precipitation is 104 over 488 cities  (21.3%).
  •  Among rivers and lakes respectively around 18% of rivers and 35% of lakes are in very bad conditions and cannot be used for irrigation.
  •  Among the lakes used as reservoirs 11.5% are under heavy or intermediate eutrophication.
Moreover due to the excessive concentration  of the huge East costal ribbon conurbation the marine biocapacity of the Chinese offshore is being  depleted quickly: 

  •  China has lost 57% of its coastal wetlands, 73% of its mangroves, and 80% of its coral reefs since the 1950s; two thirds of the coastline is under threat from coastal erosion and reduction of marine biodiversity.
  • Polluted offshore waters are now covering approximately 147,000 km2, which accounts for over half of China’s total coastal marine areas, mainly concentrated in large estuaries and bays.

  • Since the 1990s, red or green tides or jellyfish blooms recurring environmental  disasters are very alarming signals on the overall health of marine ecosystems; a large-scale green tide occurred for the first time in 2007, and has reappeared every year thereafter.

Conclusions: Are Sustainable or Eco- Cities possible in China?

In China the huge urban rate expansion has led to a number of economic, social, urban and pollution issues. The conflict between economical or social development and the environment conservation has become increasingly obvious.

To answer the question at the beginning of this post: China cities’ development is far from being ecologically sustainable; the pollution hazards and the resulting health or economical issues are the biggest price paid to the frenetic urbanization increase during the last 30 years. 

The severe reality and potential problems entailed by existing huge cities’ footprints -around 70% of all country footprint- tell us that the sustainable management of cities is more important and urgent in China than anywhere else in the world. But this concerns more the reduction of each existing city’s footprint and the protection of hinterlands’ biocapacity by comprehensive regulations, plans and investments including public awareness actions.

There is a need to assess the process of mass urbanization on the east coast and its effects on the environment. Large urban areas are those that yield maximum leverage in terms of reduced costs for transport, roads, waste collection and wastewater treatment. But there are limits that are currently already met or widely exceeded regarding the use of scarce resources such as water or the destruction of natural environments such as marine biodiversity.

One of the main tasks should be to develop medium and small cities far from the crowded east costal ribbon in order to settle and stabilize the migrant population and have a more inward oriented development model.

There is only one example of eco-cities in China but is far from being conclusive, it is the project of the Dongtan Eco-city on an island at the mouth of the Yangtze River. The project was designed to accommodate 50,000 inhabitants by 2010 and presented at the United Nations World Urban Forum as an example of eco-city in a program of four such cities in China.The construction of Dongtan is now completly stopped and its media coverage has been negative due to delays and shortcomings in its execution. Critics have argued that Dongtan would have only anecdotical impact on  existing Chinese cities, which must in any case house the majority of the population.