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View From Suzhou, China

As the COP17 talks emphasise the need for action on climate change, China is using sustainable development as a political tool

There has been much talk of China’s unsustainable property bubble recently, with Western commentators taking unseemly delight in the prediction that China’s mighty economy is teetering on the brink. But reports of China’s imminent economic decline appear to be greatly exaggerated. After all, with current GDP growth slowing to a reasonably healthy six per cent, Chinese wealth creation (especially when compared to the recession-hit West), gives a whole new meaning to the word ‘sluggish’.

Indeed, business analyst Bill Dodson, author of the book China Inside Out, wrote recently: ‘It seems a near-impossibility to escape the din of construction machines punching the ground or stamping steel or crunching concrete.’ China is still building at a frenetic pace.

Mind you, the concept of an ‘overheated’ property market is more appropriate when you consider that China shows scant regard for the installation of insulation. Unlike the UK, China has several distinct climate zones – and it is getting particularly parky in Suzhou at the moment. Living, as I do, on the top floor of a 16-storey apartment block, I am well aware of the fact that the insulation levels in residential roofs are a quarter of those of the UK building regulations, and one tenth of those of PassivHaus standards.

A recent report indicated that, on paper, 70 per cent of buildings complied with energy design standards for residential buildings, but only 30 per cent were shown to comply on inspection. Lest we forget, this level of insulation (and possibly of workmanship) is where the UK was just 25 years ago. In developmental terms, China is hastily catching up, even though it is often depicted in the media as a climate change pariah.

The West’s ability to retain a semblance of moral authority by preaching about Chinese environmental failings has seldom reflected a desire to help China improve its insulation standards. Rather, it implied that China was not somehow actively ‘saving the planet’. Instead of offering people a warmer and more comfortable existence, Western sustainability consultants tended to focus on reducing energy-production and consumption, the very things that truly developing nations are fighting to improve. 

But the COP17 UN climate change conference in Durban has exposed the fact that the West is losing credibility, even on this issue. The surprising – and perhaps – shocking thing about China is the all-pervasive language of environmentalism. Just as in the UK, you cannot go to public conferences on architecture without the dreaded prefix ‘sustainable’ rearing its ugly head. Regularly, these events are presented by Western sustainability consultants who – like the corporates they despise – are desperately touting their wares in an emerging market.

There is one difference. Unlike the West, ‘sustainability’ reflects a burgeoning internal confidence about China’s ability to play on the world’s stage. A recent Communist Party congress, for example, mandated that it would ‘aggressively participate’ in global climate change debates, reflecting its desire to dictate terms, rather than to be dictated to. However, such confidence also represents a political weakness.

One party official, writing in the Chinadaily newspaper said: ‘That China is and will remain a developing country for quite some time is a solid fact, not the product of self-painted modesty… Therefore we should continue to adopt a low-key style and work doggedly for our sustainable development.’ Sustainable development is still primarily a political mechanism to excuse the inadequate pace of ‘real’ development.

Just five years ago, the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute attempted to stymie China’s ambitions by saying: ‘The western model of growth that India and China wish to emulate is intrinsically toxic.’ Mercifully, this corrosive self-loathing is entirely absent in China. Yang Fuqiang, a senior adviser on climate and energy policy with the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council puts it bluntly: ‘Industrialised countries have consumed a large amount of resources from developing countries since the Industrial Revolution. They built economic power and left developing countries in poverty.’ Now maybe, it’s the turn of developing countries to have their century.

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