Towards a Low-Carbon City (3 July 2010)


It is in the cities that the expertise, the entrepreneurial capacities, the institutions and the leadership that have made modern civilization the most creative and wealthiest ever are concentrated. It is the people of the cities who must cooperate fully to ensure that the benefits of city life are available to all.

Remarks by Maurice Strong at theme forum on “Towards A Low-Carbon City: Environmental Changes and Urban Responsibilities" at 2010 Shanghai World Expo at Session on “Low-Carbon Economy International Cooperation and Policy for Climate Change” Nanjing 3 to 4 July

Maurice Strong addresses 2010 Shanghai Expo
photo credit: Rica Xia

It is a great privilege for me to participate in this Forum which will make an important contribution to the Theme of the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, “Better City, Better Life”. I have followed China’s progress since 1972 when it played a key role in the first world conference convened by the U.N. on the Human Environment. China participated at the conference, after it joined the United Nations.

Cities gave birth to civilization in its various manifestations and in a world in which half of the world’s population now live in cities which are continuing to grow it is in the cities that the future will be determined. Nanjing with its remarkable history is now leading China’s transformation to a sustainable future.

Many changes are underway in China’s cities to provide a better life for their people.  The central government provides support for the infrastructure on which better cities depend, the rapid expansion of the high-speed rail, highway systems, airports and seaports. The rational location of industries have a profound influence on the development of cities.

The initiative and the management of the progress which central government policies make possible resides at the provincial and local levels. And as the example of Nanjing and the exhibits at Expo demonstrate, there is a great deal of variety and specialization in the resourceful range of examples of how provincial and local authorities and industry have responded to these opportunities.

It is in the cities that the expertise, the entrepreneurial capacities, the institutions and the leadership that have made modern civilization the most creative and wealthiest ever are concentrated. It is the people of the cities who must cooperate fully to ensure that the benefits of city life are available to all. Most people who move to new or expanded existing cities must make the often difficult adjustment to being separated from their traditional homes and resist the temptation to concentrate in ghettos of those with similar origins.

Ghettoized cities can breed social unrest and even conflict. The most successful cities in bringing a better life to all the people are those with a network of neighborhoods respecting and cooperating with each other while maintaining their distinctive qualities. In this the role of educational, cultural, social and citizen-based organizations is essential.

The movement to give priority to the greening of cities builds on one of the features that have impressed me most in Chinese cities, their well designed and well kept green areas – boulevards, parks and open spaces.

There is another side to city life which afflicts many of the world’s cities and which China has a great opportunity to avoid. For just as the main benefits of urban development and economic growth are concentrated in the cities the anonymity of urban life provides a haven for anti-social activities, including corruption.

To avoid decline, cities must constantly renew themselves. We must learn from the demise of great cities of the past that we are even more vulnerable to the deterioration which can lead to the decline of our civilization.

Maurice Strong stresses the need to create green cities
photo credit: Rica Xia
The World Bank estimates that 16 of the world’s most polluted cities are in China. As this Forum has recognized, it is also the cities that are contributing most to the carbon emissions which have made China the world’s main source and threatens to make it one of the primary victims of climate change.

Controversies have weakened public awareness of support for urgent action. However, the consensus of leading scientists as members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change under the Chairmanship of the distinguished Dr. Raj Pachauri, from whom we will be privileged to hear, as well as recent experience makes a compelling case that this is the most important environmental issue which confronts the world community and threatens our very survival.

China’s leaders are responding rapidly and responsibly to this challenge with their commitment to reduce the amount of carbon emitted per dollar of GDP by 40 to 45% by the year 2020.

Despite its progress China is still only one quarter as energy efficient as other industrialized countries. Bridging this gap will produce immense benefits for China. My own experience as head of a major electric power utility demonstrated that energy efficiency can produce economic as well as environmental benefits.

The devastation produced by natural disasters, to which China is particularly vulnerable, is concentrated in the cities which recent earthquake and floods have made clear must be better prepared. They must also be better prepared to accommodate to the potential rise in sea levels which threatens low lying areas in which many of its cities, including Shanghai and even Nanjing, are located.

Most Chinese people have experienced increased incomes, while the disparities between those who have prospered most and those who have been left behind can produce social tensions which the government is giving priority to addressing. China’s still growing population and its consumer appetites has multiplied the pressures on its environment, land and resources. Land degradation is impairing agricultural productivity; water supplies and its deteriorating quality are threatening many urban as well as rural areas. Waste disposal is a monumental challenge. Most of these problems have their source in the cities which are also the main source of their solutions.

The distinctive system of governance which China has developed gives it a unique capacity to manage affectively the complex of inter-related issues shaping its future in a nation of extraordinary diversity with the world’s largest population and most rapidly growing economy. In the process China is creating a new model of development from which others can learn from its pragmatic manifestations without having to accept its ideological origins. The role of the Communist Party and its inter-relationship with all levels of government and sectors of society is the key to this.

Despite progress, Chinese experts make it clear that the development pathway along which China has been moving cannot be sustained. For China, the transition to a sustainable development harmonious pathway is essential. It is also difficult. Changes in established habits and practices do not come quickly or easily, they require a combination of policy, incentives and penalties as well as continuing education over time. No country can succeed in making this transition in isolation.

Despite progress, Chinese experts make it clear that the development pathway along which China has been moving cannot be sustained. For China, the transition to a sustainable development harmonious pathway is essential. It is also difficult. Changes in established habits and practices do not come quickly or easily, they require a combination of policy, incentives and penalties as well as continuing education over time. No country can succeed in making this transition in isolation.

In today’s world, knowledge is the principal source of progress and comparative advantage. To achieve significant and continuing reduction in China’s dependence on fossil fuels, particularly in coal, no single factor is more important than energy efficiency and industrial efficiency in making the transition to the low-carbon economy and reducing pollution.

Internationally, China is leading developing countries in their insistence that more developed countries whose accumulated carbon emissions have created the climate crisis make the latest technologies universally available and provide substantial support for developing countries in reducing their carbon emissions.

China has not waited for international agreement to undertake its own program of reducing emissions even more than would likely be required by the kind of international agreements now be negotiated, but not yet in prospect. While continuing on this path it has understandably been unwilling to commit to such reductions unless and until the more developed countries have made the binding commitments expected of them.

China’s government is demonstrating commendable leadership in meeting these daunting challenges. The Shanghai Expo is showcasing the impressive progress China has already made and the basis for optimism as to its future. It also underscores that it is in the cities of China that the success or failure of these efforts to bring a better life to its people will be determined. The growing movement to create green cities is an important step in this direction, but only a first step. All China’s cities must follow the example of Nanjing and rise to this responsibility.

What happens in China matters to the entire world, which has a great stake in China’s successful management of this historic transition and a responsibility to cooperate and assist in it.