China’s cities see clean air, water as magnet for investment

November 25, 2013

Nanchang is one of China’s “second-tier” cities. With 5.04 million people, its population is nearly twice the size of Chicago’s. There are few places here where you can get some fresh air, but in the middle of the high-tech national industrial zone on the fringes of this sprawling city, the provincial government has carved out 4.5 square kilometers of wetlands around Aixi Lake for preservation.

The park, which was set up in 2007, features young trees planted in rows, parallel to the new high-rise apartment buildings that sprout up along long blocks in Nanchang. The paved road running though the park is smooth, and divided into one lane for bicyclists and a second for electric golf carts. Wooden signs encourage passersby to “enhance environmental awareness” while construction cranes and new towers rise in the distance. It feels more like a nature theme park than a conservation site.

Like Beijing and some of China’s larger cities, Nanchang suffers from severe air pollution as a consequence of economic development. During a recent visit to Nanchang, the banks of the Don River, which snakes through the city center, were dried up because of a lack of rain and heavy construction activity. The level of particulate matter in the air registered at hazardous levels. The city’s skyline was barely visible amid heavy smog.

Despite this, local and provincial officials want people to know that the city and the province aspire to be known as much for protecting the environment as for achieving strong economic growth. Nanchang set a target to cut its carbon emissions per unit of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to 48 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, more than the national target of 40 to 45 percent.

Lan Wensheng, director of the information for the foreign affairs office of Jiangxi province, said a cleaner environment would make the region more attractive to foreign and domestic businesses. On my visit to the city’s 231-square kilometer high-tech industrial zone, officials said the center has air quality monitoring systems and that Aixi Lake will become a sanctuary for migrating birds.

A representative of the zone’s investment promotion bureau hopes that the area will become a new Silicon Valley. He said Nanchang’s environmental focus would be a draw for green energy, software, LED and automobile machinery companies. China’s national aerospace company Comac also has facilities at the park working on narrow-body aircraft meant to rival Boeing and Airbus, as does Microsoft, faucet maker Kohler and China’s Best Solar. Low-carbon industries make up 30 percent of all industrial sectors in Nanchang, officials say.

But provinces like Nanchang and Jiangxi have a long way to go. The energy-intensive region will continue to rely on coal and contentious large hydroelectric projects to ensure stable electricity to power its industries.

The Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric facility, is one of the major electricity sources for the region. The dam has caused Poyang Lake in Jiangxi, which once absorbed the Yangtze river overflow, to shrink dramatically, according to Charlton Lewis, a Chinese history professor at Brooklyn College in New York. The dam has resulted in interruptions to fish migration, raised risks for landslides and displaced thousands of people, according to NGO International Rivers.

Coal accounts for about 70 percent of Jiangxi’s energy mix, according to the province’s five-year plan released in 2012. And with nearly two-thirds of coal consumed by the province coming from other parts of China, energy costs are high.

Most provincial and central party officials say that China is paying the price for ignoring the environmental consequences of many years of double-digit economic growth. With air pollution rising to record levels around many Chinese cities, the issue has become a source of public unrest that Beijing and the provinces can no longer ignore.

In economic and political reforms announced this month, the Communist Party said it would put more emphasis on environmental protection during annual assessments of its officials, and would also hold local authorities directly responsible for pollution.

These changes may include new measures to punish those who violate environmental laws and improve monitoring of air and water quality.

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