Shenzhen’s New Path to Sustainability Is Crowded With Obstacles

A new and huge city focuses on getting cleaner.

China Shenzhen economic development office park economy Guangdong Province

Photo © Keith Schneider / Circle of Blue
An apt message for a new office park in Shenzhen. In 2014, provincial and national economists valued Guangdong Province’s annual economy at $US 1.1 trillion, which is more than Indonesia’s gross domestic product, and accounts for 10.4 percent of China’s. Click image to enlarge.

By Keith Schneider
Circle of Blue

SHENZHEN, China-– Four numbers describe this colossal city’s unrestrained development.

In 1980, the year Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping established Shenzhen as China’s first special economic zone, opening its mercantile sectors to market capitalism and free trade principles, an attractive, tree-shaded commercial district known as Dongmen was home to 30,000 residents near the center of a metropolitan region of 300,000.

In 2015, 35 years later, Dongmen is a crowded commercial neighborhood of 300,000 residents at the edge of a city of 11 million and a metropolitan region that counts 18 million, China’s fourth largest. Though population growth has slowed a bit in recent years, Shenzhen’s expanding services and digital manufacturing sectors are riding the currency of expanding wealth and aspiration to a horizon of pure financial and cultural possibility.

This week, as negotiators in Paris consider a new development path away from carbon, China’s new determination to reduce its carbon emissions has produced skepticism about its resolve, and praise for apparently switching course. In few places are both responses more relevant than here in southeast China.

Shenzhen, and Guangzhou – its even bigger neighbor to the north – and seven more densely packed Pearl River Delta cities are seen by the Central government as one giant urban and economic region in the midst of a planned economic and ecological transition.

At the same time, though, Pearl River Delta cities are hampered by two hard-to-solve economic choke points: stifling air pollution and filthy water. Produced by a decades-long mismatch between economic goals and ecological neglect, the deteriorated condition of the environment now influences the Pearl River Delta’s capacity to attract trained professionals and entrepreneurs, who are essential to the pivot the region is making to cleaner finance, digital, information services, and computer manufacturing sectors.

“The big problem is the intensity of development,” said Xiaohong Chen, director of the Water Resources and Environment Center at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou. “It caused such damage to the environment. Management was so weak. Everything changed so quickly. Now we’re like a big experiment about what to do. It’s a large challenge here.”

Map Infographic Pearl River Delta China Shenzhen Circle of Blue economic development

Map © Circle of Blue
Nothing like the pace, expanse, and colossal scale of urbanization had ever occurred in human history like it did in the super-size cities of the Pearl River Delta and surrounding Guangdong Province. Click image to enlarge.

As part of our Global Choke Point project the China Environment Forum, a program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and Circle of Blue are closely studying trends in energy, and water supply and use, in two Pacific port cities – Oakland and Shenzhen, China. The Choke Point: Cities project builds on five years of multimedia reporting and convening that examined the water-energy-food confrontations in China, Australia, the United States, India, Mongolia, and the Arabian Gulf.

Shenzhen and Oakland occupy opposite shores on the Pacific, and their basic profiles, no surprise, are shaped by attributes common and uncommon.

Pacific Coast Cities and Different Results
Shenzhen and Oakland, California are two Pacific coast cities that share a number of common traits, and also are very different.
The economies of both cities are closely tied to large, modern container shipping ports, and both cities are cultivating the development of clean economic sectors. Renewable energy companies are massing in Oakland. Computer, device, software, and high-tech manufacturers now heavily influence Shenzhen’s Silicon Valley economy.
Oakland’s stream restoration program, highlighted by construction of manmade swales and wetlands in public parks to cleanse stormwater runoff, is among the nation’s best. Shenzhen’s 442 community parks also are inviting, and the city’s highway median gardens, shaded sidewalks and avenues, and other cultivated green spaces cool expanses of asphalt and earned global renown. Shenzhen was the first Chinese city to win the “Nations in Bloom” competition in Washington, D.C in 2000, beating 32 other cities from 19 countries.
Understandably, the differences between the two cities are easy to find. Oakland, founded in 1852 to support the Gold Rush, is smaller (population: 414,000) than any of Shenzhen’s 11 districts. If all of Oakland was dropped into Shenzhen, you couldn’t find it.
Violent crime in Oakland is a daily threat, and rare in Shenzhen.

Shenzhen China economic development economy water

Photo © Keith Schneider / Circle of Blue
Though Oakland’s transit network includes the BART metro system, good connections to Oakland International Airport, and planned construction of a bus rapid transit line, the system is an impoverished organism compared to Shenzhen’s expansive, sleek, fast, and interconnected metro, efficient airport, storm of hybrid buses, and high-speed rail destinations. The silky smooth train from Shenzhen to Guangzhou, a distance of 100 kilometers (66 miles) takes 70 minutes at speeds up to 189 kilometers (117 miles) per hour.
Since a devastating earthquake in 1989, and spurred by lingering air pollution and state law, Oakland has emerged as one of the leaders in the United States for energy efficiency, clean energy development, water quality improvements, and recycling.
None of Oakland’s electricity is powered by coal. More than 70 percent of Shenzhen’s electricity is coal-fired, though most of that is imported from plants outside the city.
Water supply is a challenge for both cities. California’s four-year drought drained Oakland’s surface reservoirs and required mandatory water conservation measures that are working.
Because of its all-in or all-out seasonal rainfall and its huge growth, Shenzhen built 24 reservoirs and a water transport network to supply almost 60 percent of its nearly 1.9-billion cubic meter (506-billion gallon) annual water demand from a wet region far outside city boundaries. The city also constructed a network of wastewater recycling plants to produce greywater for industrial plants and irrigation.
City figures report that freshwater consumption is declining. In 2013, the city says, consumers used 13.2 percent less water, largely due to shifts in the manufacturing economy from water-consuming industries – steel, chemicals, paper, cement, plastics – to less thirsty high-tech manufacturing.

Unlike Oakland, which built a model sustainable development program in the United States that made ecological values a central premise of economic development, Shenzhen and provincial authorities were late in putting their focused attention on the burdens the city’s development put on its environment.

When they finally did, starting a decade ago, the technical complexities were more difficult than Shenzhen authorities anticipated. In 2006, for instance, the city started a four-year, $US 3.9 billion project to treat water pollution in 10 areas. But only modest improvements in water quality occurred, said Chunmiao Zheng, dean of the School of Environmental Science and Engineering at the South University of Science and Technology of China in Shenzhen. The city earlier this year launched what it hopes will be a more comprehensive and successful five-year, $US 12.6 billion water quality program to try again.

Guandong Province and Shenzhen also focused on air quality. Shenzhen is converting its buses to cleaner fuels. About 30,000 of what city authorities call “seriously polluting vehicles” were taken off the street in 2013, 10,000 more than in 2012, according to Shenzhen figures. Meanwhile, thousands of electric vehicles became operational, a silent armada of scooters, electric bicycles, cars, carts, buses, and trucks that whiz around every corner of the city.

And because the city says it now emphasizes energy efficiency, water conservation, and pollution prevention in its construction permitting program, Shenzhen is reducing energy demand and carbon emissions. By the end of 2013, according to the city’s website, cleaner buildings reduced fossil fuel consumption by 3.57 million metric tons, and carbon dioxide emissions by 9.23 million metric tons annually. That is equivalent to taking a 1,000-megawatt coal-fired power plant offline.

In 2009 Guandong province outlawed new coal-fired power plants in the Pearl River Delta and later ordered existing plants to convert to natural gas. Enforcement initially was spotty. But active civic protests against new coal-fired plants in and outside Shenzhen stiffened provincial resolve to make the 2009 order stick.

Guandong province last year also approved a $US 23 billion program to diversify and clear the air from the electrical generation industry by building new nuclear plants ($US 17.8 billion), wind power ($US 3.6 billion), and solar fields ($US 1.6 billion). It is not plain the diversification program will have much effect on emissions from Guandong’s existing 34 coal-fired plants outside the Pearl River District, which account for almost 51,000 megawatts of generating capacity and 76 percent of the province’s electricity.

Emissions from the province’s plants and countless coal-fired boilers mix with vehicle exhaust and make their way down the Pearl River in a visible brown cloud of pollution. More coal-fired plants are coming online, according to provincial figures, including 2,000 new megawatts of generating capacity from a coal-fired plant in coastal Xiaomo that is the site of a demonstration project to capture a small portion of the plant’s carbon emissions.

Shenzhen authorities like to boast that in the annual municipal accounting of sustainability in China, Shenzhen ranks high. A paper two years ago in the journal of the Chinese Academy of Sciences found that water and energy consumption, per unit of economic growth, peaked in Shenzhen during the middle of the century ‘s first decade and was dropping steadily. The cause was more energy efficient, water-conserving modern plants operating in the city by the 21st century, said Guoyo Qiu, a professor of environment and energy on the Shenzhen campus of Peking University.

Shenzhen also contends that by the standards of China, its air typically is among the best. Still, according to city data, last year concentrations of PM 2.5, a common measurement of sight-obscuring and lung-damaging dust, averaged nearly 40 micrograms per cubic meter, four times the health limit set by the World Health Organization. On a normal day, visitors can see the air they breathe in a contemporary, angular, high-rise city shrouded in smog.

The central challenge to the city’s cleanup is not money. Shenzhen’s treasury is full and the city’s political leaders, largely free to make decisions in a centralized governing system that has no citizen veto power, are accustomed to big investments in the public realm.

China’s air and water regulatory measures, as written and enacted, provide the necessary authority to act.

And China’s ability to marshal its innovative intelligence is keen. Shenzhen, for instance, freed a big drainage channel from concrete culverts and walls, cleared up the flow with treated water, and gave birth to a clean, free-flowing stream through its main city park.

China Shenzhen economic development metro subway system Guangdong Province

Photo © Keith Schneider / Circle of Blue
Shenzhen’s expansive, sleek, and fast metro subway network connects to the airport, high-speed rail station, and the border with Hong Kong. Three new lines are under construction. Click image to enlarge.

Another of the measures to clean up and store scarce fresh water in Shenzhen is a project called “sponge city.” The idea incorporates three basic actions:

— Install roofs and rain gutters that channel water.

— Construct gardens, lawns, and surfaces that slow water down and allow water to be absorbed into the ground.

— Direct rainwater and surface runoff to underground retention ponds and treatment plants to clear drained water of pollutants.

The sponge city program, designed and managed by the city’s planning department, has installed the drainage and treatment program in two big residential developments and is promoting the idea in all of the city’s new construction.

If not money and ideas, what is the essential missing element of Shenzhen’s cleanup dilemma? According to environmental scientists and civic authorities, the core impediment is the capacity of city leaders and regulators to enforce restraints on polluters. Unlike the United States, Canada, and much of Europe, where enforcement is widely regarded as a strong civic need and value, in China directing companies to curtail pollution is viewed as either a threat to jobs and the economy, or distasteful interference. Chinese principles of privacy, and norms of appropriate government and personal behavior come into play.

Xiaohong Chen, of Sun Yat-sen University, has been involved for decades in assisting authorities in Guangzhou, upstream of Shenzhen, in pursuing a clean water urban strategy.
Four big stormwater retaining ponds were built as centerpieces of new parks and to allow sediment-laden runoff to settle. Wastewater treatment plants were constructed. Water-polluting companies were forced to close. One measure of the program’s success is the improved quality of the Pearl River, which flows through the center of the city and surrounding metro region of 20 million people. An annual celebration includes a swimming race across the Pearl.

Shenzhen’s Economic Rocket Ride
Shenzhen China Deng Xiaoping capitalism economic development

Photo © Keith Schneider / Circle of Blue
Deng Xiaoping’s decision in 1980 to embrace market economy principles in Shenzhen unleashed China’s determined people to better their circumstances. That “giant sucking sound” that U.S. presidential candidate Ross Perot described in 1992 wasn’t just American manufacturing jobs going to Mexico. It also was the whoosh of assembly lines, presses, processing equipment, and people in this region of Southeast China building the largest light and heavy industrial and manufacturing regional economy on the planet.
Nothing like the pace, expanse, and colossal scale of urbanization had ever occurred in human history like it did in the super-size cities of the Pearl River Delta and surrounding Guangdong Province. Statistics are the validation of the transformative changes wrought by public policy.
The Shenzhen Planning Department estimates that more than 60 million people live in the Pearl River Delta, a region of 15,600 square kilometers (6,000 square miles), or just a bit larger than Connecticut. Earlier this year, a report from the World Bank called the Pearl River Delta the “largest urban area in the world in size and population.”
In 2014, provincial and national economists valued Guangdong Province’s annual economy at $US 1.1 trillion, which is more than Indonesia’s gross domestic product and accounts for 10.4 percent of China’s. In 1985, near the start of boom, the farms, fishing towns, and rural trades of Guangdong accounted for $US 8 billion in annual business, according to provincial economic reports.
Yet unlike the scenarios of bedlam and violence that Hollywood directors typically portray when large numbers of people are squeezed into tight spaces, Shenzhen and Guangzhou are orderly cities of heavy traffic that moves, tidy parks and gardens, ample mass transit, high rise and low rise residential buildings, busy restaurants, and seemingly content residents.
In Shenzhen, the world’s fourth tallest office tower opens next year. Two more that stand out along a changing skyline are in the top 50 tallest buildings. The city is spending $US 7.5 billion to add three lines to the existing five-line, 118-station, 177-kilometer (110-mile) metro network, which opened in 2004.
Shenzhen’s container port is the world’s third largest. The fourth and eighth largest ports lie at the mouth of the Pearl River Delta and upstream, in Hong Kong and Guangzhou.
Shenzhen’s computer, communications, digital design, and software companies form Asia’s Silicon Valley. The city’s $US 261 billion annual economy is larger than Chile’s. Last year alone Shenzhen government and investors spent $US 19.6 billion to add 4 million square meters (43 million square feet) of office, residential, retail, and commercial space to the urban landscape. That is as much new space as currently exists in all of downtown Philadelphia, America’s fifth largest city.

But, Chen explained, many of the companies closed by the city moved their plants upriver into the watershed. Local and provincial authorities upstream, he said, allow the new plants to operate without contemporary water pollution prevention equipment. Progress in cleaning up the Pearl River is in danger of being reversed.

“The factory always wants to make money,” Chen said. “Local governments can’t measure every time, monitor every outlet. We have too many small workshops.”

Another of the water scientists that Shenzhen turned to for help is Chunmiao Zheng, a 53-year-old groundwater modeling expert who spent half his life in the United States, much if it at the University of Alabama where he was a professor in the Department of Geological Sciences. After returning to China for a brief stint at Peking University, Zheng was recruited earlier this year to lead the School of Environmental Science and Engineering at Shenzhen’s South University of Science and Technology of China, which opened in 2011.

Among his primary assignments, along with recruiting top researchers and building his department, is helping municipal authorities execute a five-year $US 12.6 billion water cleanup project, its second water quality campaign in a decade. This time, Zheng counsels, Shenzhen needs to take a holistic, comprehensive approach that, like a speeding train, charges directly at the seminal problem: curtailing pollution at its source.

That means treating all discharges from manufacturing plants, residences, and commercial centers. Removing sediments and contaminants from stormwater. Cleaning up pollution sources that make the water in almost all of Shenzhen’s streams unusable for any purpose. The region’s groundwater, which is seriously contaminated, needs remediation. Zheng counsels the city to rebuild wastewater transport networks so they do not leak, and so that sewage and stormwater flow in separate pipes.

“So far as I know, nothing like this project has been done in China,” said Zheng. “Shenzhen will try to become a leader in water quality improvement on a massive scale.”

The assault of bad air and worse water in Shenzhen are the perfect distillation of serious risks to health and the economy fostered by unrestrained development. But in a city where tall towers and speedy metros are also the negotiable currency of progress, cleaning up the environment in this region of China seems readily possible. Given the Pearl River Delta’s 35-year record of evolving to meet new market conditions, it is a good idea to consider Shenzhen’s cleanup task dismaying, but far from impossible.

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