Can green building make China’s cities more competitive?

By Christopher Gray

November’s historic climate change agreement between China and the United States provides the green building community with another opportunity to evaluate our movement’s importance to China’s long-term economic and environmental forecast. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) has already become a major driver of market transformation in China, but how does green building fit into the complex puzzle of China’s overarching economic and demographic trends?

Now that President Xi Jinping has signaled the full extent of China’s commitment to combating climate change and greening its economy, several questions remain regarding the long-term strategic direction that China should take to ensure that it reaches its ambitious goals.

Given current conditions and projections, it is clear that China’s best chance of reaching its goal of capping carbon emissions by the year 2030 is to focus on a rapid green transformation of its urban centers. The most logical first step in this process would be to focus on the transformation of China’s built environment, not only in established international cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, but also in China’s emerging industrial megacities. Making this form of investment would not only improve the quality of life for China’s enormous urban population, it also has the potential of elevating the economic and cultural competitiveness of China’s lesser known megacities.

The problem that emerging economic powerhouse cities like Tianjin, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Hangzhou are all collectively facing is that the industries that have driven their rapid transformation into megapolises are no longer sustainable. The historic climate change agreement reached by Beijing and Washington this week was not simply prompted by a desire for increased cooperation and better relations; the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has unequivocally stated that drastic and far-reaching cuts in greenhouse gas emissions will be needed almost immediately if we have any hope of avoiding the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.

Because many of the long-term impacts of climate change are only beginning to occur, many of the achievements of green buildings are currently seen as positive features versus essential economic conditions. This perception will change as the negative effects of climate change become more frequent and severe, and the necessity of living in a city with a built environment that maximizes its water resources, uses energy efficiently and effectively and utilizes smart urban planning and design to minimize travel distances for its citizens becomes more obvious.

Cities that are unable to rely on the sustainable design of their built environment will struggle to compete with their internal and international competitors for a number of reasons:

  • These cities will be unable to offer the same quality of life to their citizens that other greener cities can offer and they will similarly struggle to develop and retain top talent for their workforces.
  • The increased scarcity of material resources such as water will also cause the costs of everyday life to skyrocket, and this will force the cost of economic activity to soar in cities that do not make substantial investments in green buildings.
  • Cities that fail to use the principles of sustainable design to situate buildings along mass transit routes will also struggle with substantially higher costs of living and doing business in comparison to cities that demonstrate a commitment to making those investments now.


Chinese cities are still heavily reliant on economic activities that are largely dependent on the burning of fossil fuels. As momentum builds toward the establishment of an international consensus aimed at phasing out these very activities, Chinese industrial cities will need to dramatically reduce the emissions attributed to their built environment if they have any hope of avoiding harmful economic disruptions while they transition toward greener methods of industrial production.

China’s internationally established cities have already begun to take aggressive steps toward greening their built environments, with Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong already ranking among the top cities in the world for LEED.

As more recently developed cities in China attempt to reach their full economic, social, and political potential they too will need to focus on controlling the environmental impacts of their built environment. Failure to make important investments in global, internationally recognized green rating systems like LEED today will make avoiding large economic and social disruptions tomorrow a difficult proposition to manage.