I am really excited.
On May 10 (incidentally, but fittingly, Pangea Day) at the Xiamen Climate Change Symposium held at Xiamen University in Xiamen City, Fujian, I was introduced to an exciting opportunity for Xiamen City to undertake what has potential to be a truly groundbreaking project.
A consortium comprised by CHORA (an urban planning, architectural and research organization based in London), Atelier Liu Yuyang Architects (a Shanghai-based architectural firm), Caspervandertak (a Beijing-based CDM consulting firm) and Xiamen University, each joint-hosts of the symposium, are pitching the idea of establishing Xiamen as an “climate change incubator”—i.e. the creation of an institutional structure for the promotion and development of a series of climate change mitigation projects that will the take the form of renewable energy (RE) and energy efficiency (EE) installations. A key feature of the proposal is the use of financing from the clean development mechanism (CDM) under the Kyoto Protocol.
Architects Raoul Bunschoten of CHORA (right) and Liu Yuyang of Atelier making the pitch in Xiamen.
In basic terms, the CDM is a program in which developing countries, like China, who are not bound by carbon emission reduction obligations, are encouraged to undertake projects in their jurisdiction that result in carbon emission reductions through financing provided by developed countries, who are themselves bound by such obligations and can credit such emission reductions to their obligations, even though those reductions have taken place in the developing country.
Up to now, CDM projects, shaped by the complicated rules that govern them, have almost always taken the form of single large installations, e.g. a biogas plant or a wind farm. However, two alternative forms of CDM exist—“bundling” and “programme of activities” (POA)—which may be better suited for the urban environment. Bundling, as the name implies, consist of a series of small-scale installations can be bundled together under a single umbrella CDM structure. POA is similar, with an emphasis that a private or public body coordinates the implementation of a series of policies or measures that result in emissions reductions. The rules for POA were only recently promulgated at the end of last year.
Bundling and POA allow, for the first time, RE/EE projects that traditionally would not have qualified for the CDM due to not meeting the required threshold size to obtain CDM funding. Examples of bundling projects include the Kuyasa EE projects in South Africa and the distribution of photovoltaic kits in Morocco, while examples of POA projects that are now in the pipeline as a result of these new rules include solar home system installations in rural India through the organization, Grameen Shakti, and biogas projects in Brazil by the meat company, Sadia.
And soon, it is hoped that Xiamen can use CDM as the springboard for a green leap forward. Said Joost van Acht of Caspervandertak:
Coordination between all stakeholders and the engagement of specialized expertise will be crucial to cut through the complexities of the rules governing CDM. This is where the City of Xiamen can play a leading role as an incubator that brings together developers and specialized knowledge on RE/EE technologies and the carbon market which will be the key to successfully take advantage of the opportunities offered by CDM.
Raoul Bunschoten, director of CHORA and the brainchild of this vision for Xiamen, further observes that the use of POA and bundling is perhaps better suited than the vanilla CDM structure for urban greening initiatives:
[U]rban planning is complex by nature, has to address many stakeholders and touches economy, culture, politics and society in many ways, so is closer to a population in a way, but also is inherently complex in terms of management, or should be. This complexity seems to match or map the complexity of POA and bundling [under the] CDM, or at least they can be tuned to each other. New urban planning methods can be a vehicle for POA and bundling applications and processes, and these may need the urban environment to be effective, to get a critical mass of projects and to become visible.
Xiamen, formerly Amoy, is a port city in the southeastern province of Fujian. Metropolitan Xiamen covers an area of 1565 square kilometers and is home to just under 3 million residents. One of the earliest designated special economic zones (SEZs) in China and one of the top ten busiest ports, Xiamen is very visibly not only one of the more prosperous cities I have visited, but also one of the most thoughtfully landscaped, with tree-lined boulevards that remind me a lot about my hometown, Singapore. It is clear that the people of Xiamen place value quality of life, and derive a great sense of pride of the city that they have built.**
[**It was noted by a participant of the symposium that the people of Xiamen have a great sense of pride about their city. It was later explained to me by Dahpon Ho, a Fulbright Scholar doing historical research in Xiamen that a large part of that pride stems from the fact that for several decades after the founding of modern China until only the early/mid 1990s, Fujian and the rest of southeast China did not figure in the economic development plans of the central government and were considered the backwaters of China. As a result of this historical political neglect, there is a feeling among Xiamen residents that the prosperity they enjoy today was accomplished largely on their own.]
Over the past decade, Xiamen has garnered numerous awards for being a green and healthy city. Hitherto, however, none of these awards have likely included the city’s carbon profile into their evaluation criteria. The consortium’s proposal thus represents an excellent opportunity for Xiamen to redefine what it means to be a green, sustainable city, using carbon as a key metric.
As Bunschoten puts it, given the complexities of the CDM, especially bundling or PoA structures, “talking about environmental pilot projects made sense in a city with a desire to be the cleanest city in China.” A recent incident in mid-2007 also underscores the probable acceptance of the people of Xiamen to such a project—a proposal to build a chemical plant was scrapped after significant public outcry over its environmental ramifications.
Not Just Any Other Eco-City Project
The Xiamen proposal is unique because unlike some other China eco-city projects such as Dongtan-Shanghai and Singapore-Tianjin (see previous post), it does not aim to build an sustainable city on a bare piece of land from scratch, but to retrofit an already existing medium sized metropolitan area, a much more complicated endeavor given the need for re-engineering not only incumbent urban infrastructure, but also social and political mindsets of the city’s stakeholders. After all, the implementation of the project will have to be undertaken by these very stakeholders, all of whom have already established a pattern of living, behavior and beliefs.
Furthermore, the consortium seeks not only merely to turn Xiamen into an “eco-city” (a buzzword that is being thrown around a lot lately but is in sore need of a precise definition), but to also consciously redefine how urban planning and governance is carried out. According to Raoul, the Xiamen proposal is driven by the “Urban Gallery” concept—an urban planning methodology developed by Chora. Under this methodology, the relationship of an urban planner to a city is analogized to that of a curator to a gallery. Says Bunschoten, it is a relationship
that links an interactive management of knowledge with negotiation methods for prototypical urban projects. The Urban Gallery is managed by “Urban Curators”…The Urban Curator designs the linking of processes, or in other words designs the organisational form of the dynamics or behaviour of an urban environment, in essence a cybernetic practice…the programmatic CDM process proscribes clusters of projects rather than one large one needing a Curator.
This emphasis on process and social/political dynamics in a context of urban development is profound in that it recognizes a concept of innovation that I have been harping on previously, i.e. the need for social innovation in addition to technological innovation, and the need for disruptive systems over disruptive technologies. Indeed, during the half day symposium, there was scant notion of specific energy technologies that should be considered for the project.
The real challenge at hand, especially given the complexities of a bundling or POA project, is creating the vision, organizational structure and administrative processes to execute a long-term low carbon strategy through the full engagement and coordination of the strengths and interests of all stakeholders. These stakeholders include, but are not limited to, property developers, renewable energy technology developers, R&D institutions, businesses that want to be perceived as green, media, and general public (including minority and underprivileged groups).
Although a full explanation of the parenthetical in the preceding sentence is beyond the scope of this article, it is worth acknowledging that there is an emerging recognition that an eco-city is not self-sustaining if it is built merely with eco-hardware. Eco-software, i.e. values and beliefs systems and practices consistent with sustainability, equity, and public participation, must also be installed. Indeed, this recent comment by a reader of this blog makes exactly this point.
Architects and Urban Planners as Climate Initiators
It is significant that it is architects such as Bunschoten and Liu Yuyang of Atelier that are leading this initiative as it. Said Liu:
This project is exciting and significant because architects and urbanists are playing a much more proactive role as “initiators” or “enablers” of a larger development mechanism as opposed to just being hired as consultants or service providers. So what architects do well: realization of a built structure and environment by integrating different needs, desires, and constrains, can now be quantifiable into not just how many more apartment units they help to sell, but how many tons of carbon emission they help to reduce and how that brings in certain financial return.
In the same vain, Bunschoten believes that, the practice of urban design and planning will change radically in due course because climate change is a problem that all learning and professional institutions have will have to address with growing awareness or the problem globally.
Why Xiamen Should Say Yes
The consortium’s proposal is ambitious and complex and will require much effort, dedication and resources. Yet, if it is executed well, it has the power to energize and increase wealth, both psychic and economic. The direct benefits are obvious—CDM revenues; a lower carbon profile that imply greater natural resource utilization efficiency that can, especially in these times of spiraling commodity prices, translate into tangible costs savings; and the environmental and health benefits that comes with an economy that relies on cleaner and more efficient uses of energy. But this is just the beginning. There are also tremendous spin-off effects. Aside from the psychological benefits to the people of Xiamen that come with a sense of pride in living in China’s greenest city, and the increased quality of life and general “happiness” that comes with living in a cleaner environment, there are very real economic multiplier effects that the government of Xiamen should appreciate:
- RE/EE projects will create jobs. Not just any jobs, but green jobs—jobs that labor that is highly skilled and technical in nature, which will also enhance educational and training standards in Xiamen in order to meet the job supply.
- Green businesses, and newly formed institutions that are created as a result of implementing the RE/EE projects will have to set up offices in Xiamen, creating an influx of potential tax revenue and desirable brain power.
- The reputation and branding of Xiamen as a RE/EE hub and low-carbon city will attract other green and cleantech businesses to locate offices or operations in Xiamen as these businesses like to be established in a geographical context that is consistent with their business mission.
- Xiamen can be an eco-tourisim destination, providing a showcase to eco-tourists on how to successfully retrofit (and integrate into) a small to medium sized Chinese city with low carbon hardware and software.
- A cleaner environment results in healthier residents, resulting in reduces health care costs and lower rates of absenteeism (and hence increased productivity).
What is not to like?
From Excitement to Action
If you have read everything up to this point, I hope that my enthusiasm for this project has infected you. The task ahead for the consortium is to build on the momentum generated by the symposium to get buy-in from the key decision makers in the Xiamen government, and move forward with developing a detailed time table and action plan. There would be a lot of work ahead—lots of brainstorming and discussions; technical assessments of Xiamen’s baseline carbon profile and forecasting under different scenarios; perhaps the administration of a tendering system to RE/EE project developers; figuring out how to allocate the revenues generated from the project, project monitoring, supervision and consultation, but just to mention a few aspects.
But the end result may be something that is not only economically and socially self-sustaining, but can serve as a prototype for urban development across China and beyond.