Region Forward Blog

Observations from China on Governance Sustainability Future Global Partnership

Apr 27, 2012


This March Jeff King a Principal Environmental Planner at MWCOG and Rick Cole City Manager at the City of Ventura California traveled to the cities of Beijing Xi’an and Chongqing in China as part of the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) China Center initiative.

As part of the Climate Fellows Program exchange they visited government agencies and sites such as the Environmental Protection Bureaus at Chongqing and Xi’an environmental firms business organizations and academic institutions such as the China University of Political Science and Law. Their observations helped shape this post.

Thinking about China and the United States try to answer the following questions: which country ratified the Kyoto Protocol the international agreement adopted in 1997 that set individual targets for greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions? And which country is the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide (CO)? The answer to both of these questions is China which ratified the Kyoto Protocol in August 2002 and surpassed the United States in CO2 emissions in 2006. The US however barely trails behind China as the world’s number two producer. China and the US are also the world’s largest consumers of energy.

Delegates to the second Annual New Energy Cities Summit at Peking University in Beijing including speakers Danielle Murray Renewable Energy Program Manager for the City of San Francisco; Jeff King Principal Environmental Planner at MWCOG; and Emil King District Department of the Environment

Both countries face similar environmental challenges including improving air quality and reducing heavy fossil fuel dependency all while trying to sustain economic growth. The difference in government structure however makes the nature of addressing these challenges different.

Local governance in China for example differs markedly from what has evolved in America with a major difference being the centralization of urban governance. Independent suburbs don’t appear to exist in the metropolitan-scale “city” governments in China. For example Chongqing covers an area that not only encompasses 8-10 million urbanized citizens but the surrounding 23 million rural and semi-rural residents as well.

The growth and development realized in Chongqing in the last 10 years is truly astonishing. They are on track to add millions more urban inhabitants in the coming decade a development challenge of a scale not faced in the United States in recent times.

From ICMA’s standpoint it is striking to note the absence of any professional management profession or framework. The two most impactful leaders at the city level are the central party leader and the Mayor which have remarkable power over development outcomes. Those roles are also as recent developments in Chongqing underscore highly vulnerable to corrupting influences.

Local governments also lack the ability to tax and raise enough revenues for large-scale projects. Too often as a result they respond by organizing large potentially ill conceived and unproductive development projects because they induce short-run economic growth and activity and are responsive to central government mandates.

There are differences at the national level too. Whereas in the U.S. the two-party political system and the political process often impede action China’s system allows the government to act on large-scale initiatives without delay. However projects conceived to be responsive may not ultimately have strong linkages to relevant and desired outcomes.

China has a number of model city initiatives much like the Region Forward plan in which formal awards and acknowledgements are given to cities for meeting national goals and “model city” standards. Their performance is not measured just on meeting environmental performance targets but on a broad list of measures such as economic growth and development. Local government leaders strive to achieve model city status which requires effectively balancing the economic development social management and environmental goals.

And to further complicate the situation there are also new and powerful contending forces that clamor for attention and flex their muscles to influence political decision-making – including the emerging middle class wealthy business interests non-governmental organizations grassroots protestors and international investors.

Rick Cole City Manager of Ventura California speaking with Ruby Lu of the China Power Investment Corporation

In spite of the mounting obstacles however there is hope for tackling major environmental issues which the Chinese see as an urgent priority. Some of the work under consideration includes putting in place large heat exchange systems to work in coordination with the wastewater systems to ultimately help fuel the District Energy systems in Beijing. Once they are implemented the system could provide up to 50% of the heat load of the central business district. Widespread use of geothermal heat exchange is under consideration as well.

Beijing is also embarking on efforts to divert food waste from the waste stream and to quadruple the diversion of solid waste from landfills to plants that can convert waste-to-energy. This is a critical issue given the city’s massive and growing population and the thousands of tons of waste produced each day.

During a visit King and Cole paid to a middle school in Xi’an young students shared their thoughts on environmental leadership saying they that we all need to work together to save the planet. “A new generation devoted to improving environmental quality in a loving collaborative way” King reflected. “That is the kind of action we all can support.”

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