The plank road in Xiangmi Park, Shenzhen Photo credit: Visual China Group

The plank road in Xiangmi Park, Shenzhen Photo credit: Visual China Group

Text / Zhang Zhipeng

Shenzhen is still full of vibrancy in winter. We have the honor to invite Mr. Tang Jie, Professor of Economics and Management from the Harbin Institute of Technology, Shenzhen and former vice mayor of Shenzhen, as well
as Mrs. Ye Qing, President of the Shenzhen Institute of Building Research Corporation, to join the discussion on Shenzhen’s sustainable development. The topics covered range from Shenzhen’s development to the consensus reached and joint efforts made by governments, companies, social groups and individuals to gradually achieve green development, where man and nature live in harmony. The memory of the past and outlook to the
future unfold in front of us.

Tang Jie, Professor of Economics and Management at the Harbin Institute of Technology, Shenzhen and former vice mayor of Shenzhen

Ye Qing, President of the Shenzhen Institute of Building Research Corporation

1. How does the vision of sustainable development influence Shenzhen’s development strategies? What achievements have been made in this regard?

Tang Jie: First, instead of developing large-scale CBDs, Shenzhen’s urban planning is designed to promote “multi- center” clusters. The fact that fewer people commute within 45 minutes means that this city has a longer overall commuting time. Places with a higher population density tend to have longer commuting times and vice versa. Statistics show that Shenzhen ranks first in terms of population density among the four super first-tier cities in China, followed by Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing. The proportion of commuting within 45 minutes is also the highest, reaching 76%, which fully reflects the characteristics and advantages of Shenzhen’s multi-center development model.

Second, Shenzhen’s urban design reflects the value of “man and nature in harmony”. For example, to leverage the southeast monsoon, the previous planning of Shenzhen largely focused on the southeast area. Also, the constructing plan for Binhai Avenue was adjusted to preserve the sound environment for birds.

Giving priority to urban planning holds the key to sustainable development. Over the past four decades, relevant departments of the Shenzhen government have always upheld the

vision of sustainable development, considered thoroughly plans and strategies, prepared for worst-case scenarios and made sound decisions. In other words, it takes about 500 days to construct a building in Shenzhen, compared to only 50 days in some cities in the central part of China. To illustrate that, I will give you two examples. One, the location of Shenzhen North Railway Station, originally planned to be at

Bijia Mountain, which is located within the ecological protection zone, was adjusted. Two, the relevant departments of Dapeng District gave up the plan to develop the rocket industry, since it could cause environmental pollution problems.

The lessons from the states along
the Rust Belt of the U.S. demonstrate that investment-driven development
is an unsustainable approach. Only through transforming to efficient and high-quality growth can we continue to pursue sustainable development.
The green, low-carbon, sustainable, garden-city development featuring
the sound environment of Shenzhen
in itself is indeed a miracle, given
that it is a megacity with exponential growth in China – a developing country
undergoing rapid industrialization.

Ye Qing: Indeed, Shenzhen has made great efforts to promote a green, circular and low-carbon development, and tried hard to strike a balance between environmental protection and socio-economic development to ensure that man and nature live in harmony, which has created a path

of green and low-carbon growth
in economically-developed areas. Shenzhen is a multi-cluster city, with nearly half of its land designated
as ecological protection zones. It is home to greenways of over 2,400
km, and ecological forest landscape belts covering 2,600 hectares. Green corridors between clusters also serve as breezeways to mitigate the heat island effect. Shenzhen takes the lead in air quality and has the least water and energy consumption per unit of GDP respectively among China’s large- and medium-sized cities. In addition, this city tops the list with 120 million km2
of green buildings. Shenzhen people own 400,000 new energy vehicles (NEV), making Shenzhen one of the cities
with the most NEVs. Shenzhen also
has the first carbon trading market in China, with a total quota turnover of more than 56 million tons and a total turnover of more than 1.3 billion RMB
in 2019, with the market turnover rate increasing year by year. Shenzhen, as an international ‘garden city’ and the winner of the Global 500 Roll of Honour for Environmental Achievement, is China’s first city to join the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group. All these achievements cannot be made without the joint contributions of various
sectors, including city planning,
energy, transportation, construction,
environmental protection, water supplies and finance. That is to say,
the value of green and low-carbon development has been the consensus of relevant industries in Shenzhen.

People enjoying the green way in Shenzhen Bay Park Photo credit: Visual China Group

2. How did Shenzhen’s vision of sustainable development come into place? What are the critical junctures in pursuing sustainable development?

Tang Jie: The vision of the sustainable development of Shenzhen did not naturally come into place. With
the principle of respecting nature, Shenzhen, in the first place, attempted to foster a development path different from that of other cities, which focus on industrialization. This city began the first round of transformation around 1995 to 2000, due to the changing mindset of the government and the rising costs of urban development.

For example, it was normal that the electricity supply was cut off three days a week in Shenzhen since it faced a severe shortage of electricity in its early development. Many stores and shops were equipped with diesel generators, causing huge environmental pollution. To solve this problem, a city-wide high voltage power transmission network has been built in about a decade (from 2000 to 2010) thanks to increasing investment in infrastructure.

Structural readjustment has paved the way for sustainable development. Shenzhen is the first city in the Chinese mainland to roll out a catalogue of prohibited and restricted industries for new projects and to draw a red
line for ecological protection. By banning certain development projects, Shenzhen continues to phase out low- efficient and low-quality enterprises while maintaining sound development.

Ye Qing: The vision of sustainable development has been gradually reinforced. Let me share some thoughts on urban construction as a member of the Standing Committee of People’s Congress.

Since 1986, Shenzhen has adopted the urban planning scheme featuring belt and cluster development, with green belts separating different clusters. This plan aimed to prevent urban sprawling and ensure a flexible development pattern for preserving a sound ecological environment.

Shenzhen has successively introduced relevant policies, laws and regulations concerning resources, the environment and health since the 1990s. But it was around 2006 when the vision

of sustainable development was officially incorporated into the laws and regulations administering all industries. The 11th Five-year Plan of Shenzhen stressed four constraints hampering sustained and sound development: limitations of land, energy and water shortages, explosive population growth, and strained environmental carrying capacity. Given the harsh realities, Shenzhen took sustainable development as a strategy, carrying out a package of relevant regulations. With the issuance of Guidelines of the CPC Central Committee and the State Council on Supporting Shenzhen in Building a Pilot Demonstration Area of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, the Shenzhen Municipal Government has elevated the importance of sustainable development to an unprecedented level and accelerated the transformation of the whole society.

Plan of Ecological Protection Red Line in Shenzhen

Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC)
EKC is ahypothesized relationship between environmental degradation and per capita income. When a country is at a lower level of economic development, it sees a lower level of environmental pollution. As its per capita income increases, the level of environmental pollution also rises. However, once beyond the ‘turning point’ of per capita income, the economic growth will lead to environmental improvement.

3. Sustainable development covers a wide range of fields. Some scholars have stressed that fulfilling certain goals requires coordinated efforts. Does Shenzhen have any practical examples of this?

Ye Qing: A green city with a sound environment is like a vibrant ecosystem, ranging from green buildings and green parks to green districts and green cities. The planning of a green city must incorporate multiple disciplines and objectives. Let me share with you two practices we have been engaging in. In addition to traditional urban planning, we have adopted a balanced approach with respect to environmental carrying capacity, which includes evaluation for the ecological environment, balanced planning, flexible implementation, smart operation and real-time assessment. We have also strengthened energy research and planning,

introduced policies and measures to address the heat island effect and built ecological corridors. Through these efforts, the meaning of urban planning has been enriched, which in turn has promoted the sound and sustainable development of Shenzhen.

Verticals greenery and stairwell sunshield at iBR ©️Shenzhen Institute of Building Research

Verticals greenery and stairwell sunshield at iBR ©️Shenzhen Institute of Building Research

Tang Jie: Our research reveals that energy conservation, emission reduction and air pollution control are highly relevant to maintaining high- quality economic development. Fossil fuels are the major contributor to carbon emissions and environmental (air) pollution. Regarding the practices in Shenzhen, measures for carbon emission reduction and those of PM2.5 reduction are nearly 80% similar, so it can be seen that ensuring a low level of PM2.5 and clean air is closely related to energy conservation and (carbon) emission reduction. These measures have also fueled the development of new industries, such as new energy vehicles, and has fulfilled three goals: carbon emission reduction, air quality

improvement, and high-quality economic development. By introducing the carbon quota reward and punishment mechanism of the carbon trading market, Shenzhen will gradually phase out enterprises with high energy consumption and pollution enterprises based on the market law.

A common misunderstanding is
that sustainable development is incompatible with economic growth. However, Shenzhen has removed
such a notion through its own efforts. Here is an example demonstrating the coordinated development between
the environment and the economy. Shenzhen International Low Carbon City, while developing low-carbon and
green technology like power generation through garbage incineration, has propelled the development of the surrounding areas, where the price of industrial plants has risen from 8 RMB to 20 RMB per square meter.

Vertical greenery at iBR ©️Shenzhen Institute of Building Research

4. General Secretary Xi Jinping announced in September 2020 that China will strive to have CO2 emissions hit their peak before 2030, and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060. What are the implications for Shenzhen? What will Shenzhen do

to provide replicable and effective practices to the whole country?

Ye Qing: The announcement
by President Xi provides both
opportunities and challenges. As a
Pilot Demonstration Area of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,
Shenzhen should not only shoulder
the responsibility of maintaining sustainable socio-economic growth, but should also try hard to explore viable ways to deliver on the goals made by
President Xi. Therefore, great synergy will be forged in the whole society under binding policies and regulations, pushing Shenzhen’s sustainable development to a new high. Shenzhen’s green and low-carbon development has already taken the lead in the country, which means that small problems related to emission reduction have been addressed. However, Shenzhen must take the initiative in dealing with much tougher problems, which are huge challenges since no existing domestic or international cases can be found.

There is no doubt that Shenzhen’s construction faces the greatest pressure as one of the three major carbon emission sectors, which also include industry and transportation. Located in the subtropical zone, Shenzhen is an intensely developed megacity with high density and rapid development. The tertiary industry accounts for the highest proportion in economic structure and keeps growing, so the carbon emissions caused by the construction and operation of buildings also rise sharply.

I believe we should leverage advantages in the fields of legislation, market and technologies to have CO2 emission peak and achieve carbon neutrality with innovative measures.

Tang Jie: The decision to peak carbon emissions and achieve carbon neutrality contribute to both the high-quality development of China and the international community. The twin goals are closely related

to industrial advancement. High- quality development means efficiency improvement, so that we can achieve higher output with less investment. China’s per capita electricity consumption is 25% of that of the United States. This gap will only be narrowed down with the increasing per capita GDP of China in the future. It is of vital importance to find out ways of reducing electricity consumption, pollution and carbon emissions to ensure further development.

Since the establishment of the reform and opening-up policy, China’s economic growth rate is three times higher than the world average, but the increase in life expectancy remains the same as
the world’s. Many studies at home and abroad have revealed the relationship between carbon emissions and air quality. People also widely recognize the relationship between air quality,
life expectancy and chronic diseases. In other words, peaking carbon emissions
and realizing carbon neutrality can improve national health and further advance industrial development.

In my opinion, the “green is gold” policy stressed by General Secretary Xi Jinping not only means efforts to restore nature and ecology, but also emphasizes the need to create a development model

in which human beings live in harmony with nature.

Map of cities with zero carbon emission goals

5. What are the deficiencies and problems facing Shenzhen’s sustainable development? What are the possible solutions?

Ye Qing: With rapid urbanization, Shenzhen faces several challenges: old problems are intertwined with new ones; population grows exponentially; social governance does not keep pace with economic development; great pressure is imposed on resources and the environment; different regions witness unbalanced and uncoordinated development. Here I propose some solutions: to strengthen scientific innovation; to improve the efficiency of resource utilization; to pursue stringent measures of environmental protection; to promote governance capacity; to make people’s lives better.

Tang Jie: Shenzhen’s future growth
is not to be constrained by the vision
of sustainable development, but to achieve a higher level of integration between human beings and nature, and to provide the whole country with replicable and effective practices. First,
the world has witnessed profound changes, with the revolution in energy sources as the top priority. Shenzhen needs to keep up with this trend and further develop renewable energy. Studies show that the solar power generated by 200 million square meters of building facades is equivalent to that of two 3-million-kilowatt coal power plants. Shenzhen’s priority should be shifted from conserving energy and reducing emissions in the construction sector, to achieving carbon neutrality and developing renewable energy.

Second, attention should be paid to the importance of ecological protection. We should create a method for calculating the costs of addressing environmental pollution in pursuing development

and the “net GDP” after subtracting the costs. In this way, we can strike

a balance between ecological value and social value to ensure sustainable development in the long run.

The concept of harmonious coexistence between man and nature is a vital part of the traditional values of Chinese civilization. Over the past 40 years of reform and opening up, Shenzhen has developed from a small border town into a modern metropolis. Shenzhen, driven by the historic opportunities, which are the policies of building the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area and transforming Shenzhen into a Pilot Demonstration Area of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, should further explore a model for sustainable development of megacities that can be replicated and promoted nationwide. As two guests repeatedly stressed, Shenzhen will continue to pursue sustainable development, give play to the leading role of innovation, and build a people-centered city with diversity and prominent features of the post-industrial era.

Shenzhen East Waste-to-Energy Plant
©️ Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects & Gottlieb Paludan Architects