Green Building: A Critical Climate Solution Spreads across China

This week, as people from all over the world assemble at the United Nations for Climate Week, I am reminded of another international gathering spot I went to just 10 days ago--Beijing's Olympic Village.

What do these two places have in common? Solving climate change.

The United Nations may be the site of critical climate conversations, but the Olympic Village is where one of our most important climate solutions is being put into action: green building.

While I was in China two weeks ago, NRDC released a study on green building that we conducted with The Boston Consulting Group. Called From Gray to Green: How Energy-Efficient Buildings Can Help Make China's Rapid Urbanization Sustainable, the report found that buildings account for about 25 percent of China's total energy use--as much as China's cement, iron, and steel sectors combined.

Fortunately, our study revealed that China can cut energy use by up to 70 percent using existing green building techniques--thinks like installing better insulation and efficient windows, using natural lighting, and retrofitting heating and cooling systems.

Even with modest efforts in green building could cut global warming pollution dramatically. If by 2015, 5 percent of China's existing buildings and 60 percent of its new buildings could improve efficiency by 50 percent, it would be the equivalent of:

  • Turning off all the lights in American for one month
  • Saving the electricity from 550 coal-fired power plants

These are savings on a grand scale, and that is just what China needs as it works to confront its carbon emissions.

What I find most inspiring about my visit to China was how rapidly government officials and private businesses are embracing the power of efficiency and green building.

For 30 years, NRDC has been telling the efficiency story in the United States, and while some utilities and states like California have caught on, progress has been slow. In China, efficiency is a much bigger story. This is in part because China's efficiency per GDP is a lot lower than America's, so there is room to make great improvements. But people also see the climate and cost-saving benefits of efficiency as well.

Cities across China are beginning to launch significant green building and energy efficiency projects--some, I am proud to say, NRDC helped to develop.

Beijing, for instance, has implemented energy-saving standards across urban and rural areas. Hangzhou is doing energy retrofits of 600 large public buildings. And Wuhan has started conducting energy audits of large public buildings.

Just like in the United States, China's green buildings have become attractive properties. That is certainly the case in the Olympic Village. I found the village to be extremely appealing. It is filled with eco-friendly, beautifully designed garden apartments, built on the very humane scale of five or six stories each.

Here is a photo I took of  Barbara Finamore, the director of NRDC's China clean energy project, standing in front of some of the apartments.

Image removed.

Thanks to its water and energy efficiency features, the Olympic Village was awarded LEED-ND Gold certification, one of the world's highest grades for environmental community design.

The Olympic Village is a large government-sponsored project, but entrepreneurs in China are getting into the act as well. While I was in Shanghai, I visited the URBN Hotel. The owners masterfully transformed an old post office (using mostly recycled materials) into an architecturally interesting, modern hotel. The building's green features help save up 35 percent on energy and water use compared to similar hotels.

They also save money. Jules Kwan, one of the owners, says, "If you're smart in the planning stage, you can actually build more economically through being eco-friendly. The bottom line is that it doesn't have to cost more; it can cost you less."

These green building projects are just the beginning. China has enormous opportunities to tap its energy efficiency resources. It will take sustained commitment on the part of national and local governments, builders, and residents. But the rewards from getting it right will be enormous, not just for the Chinese, but for all the people around the globe who are trying to save the planet from climate change.