MELBOURNE (REUTERS) – Australia, under a new Labor government, on Thursday (June 16) raised its 2030 target for cutting carbon emissions, bringing the country more in line with other developed economies’ Paris climate accord commitments.
Australia, one of the world’s highest per capita carbon emitters, pledged to the United Nations that it would cut carbon emissions by 43 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030, up from the previous conservative government’s target of between 26 per cent and 28 per cent.
“When I’ve spoken with international leaders in the last few weeks, they have all welcomed Australia’s changed position,” Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said after notifying the UN.
Under the former government, Australia, the world’s top exporter of coal and liquefied natural gas, had long been seen as a laggard in climate commitments, with no clear energy and climate policy to encourage renewable energy investments.
At the UN climate summit in Glasgow last year, former prime minister Scott Morrison was criticised for failing to set a more ambitious emissions-cutting target while the United States, Canada, EU, Britain and Japan all sharply stepped up their pledges.
Canada is aiming for a reduction of 40 per cent by 2030 from 2005 levels, while the US has a target of up to 52 per cent.
“For years, the Australian government told the world that was all too hard,” Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen told reporters at a televised media conference in Canberra.
“We send the message to the rest of the world, to our friends and allies, that we’re partners in tackling the climate emergency. We send the message to Australians that we seek to end the climate wars, as the Prime Minister said,” Mr Bowen added.
The push to slash emissions more rapidly comes as the country is facing a major power crisis caused by planned and unplanned coal-fired generator outages, which have driven up demand for gas-fired generation just as global gas prices have skyrocketed.
Mr Bowen said the crisis highlighted the need to speed up, not slow down, work on the regulations needed to encourage more investment in renewable energy.
JAKARTA – Indonesia, the biggest thermal coal exporter, vowed to subsidise renewable energy projects and open its first nuclear power plant by 2045 in a draft legislation to help it reach its net-zero emissions goal.
The Bill, which still needs approval from President Joko Widodo and Parliament before becoming law, seeks to lead the country on a path that would both ensure all 270 million residents have access to power while also making the country entirely reliant on renewable energy by 2060.
The draft sets out a strategic outline, with more detailed rules to be issued later.
Officials have their work cut out for them, as the nation with the world’s fourth-largest population also has one of the world’s smallest wind and solar power fleets. Indonesia relied on fossil fuels for 86 per cent of its electricity in 2020, according to BloombergNEF.
Here are a few key issues in the latest draft of the Bill, which will soon be discussed by the government:
Indonesia will prioritise local demand before allowing renewable energy to be transmitted overseas, with exporters required to pay a tax. The stipulation would follow a ban by nearby Malaysia, and could hamper neighbouring Singapore’s plan to import clean electricity. The focus on domestic use also applies to the coal sector, where miners will have to set aside at least 30 per cent of their output for local consumption at a ceiling price of US$70 (S$96) a tonne for high-quality coal, compared with current global prices around S$400 a tonne.
The government will give incentives, including tax and administrative ones, to support new projects. It will also subsidise renewable energy when the cost of producing it is unable to compete with fossil fuels. A renewable energy fund will collect money from the state budget, export taxes, carbon trading funds and other sources, then use the cash to build infrastructure, give incentives for developers or to support research.
Indonesia will set up a nuclear power assembly that will monitor the development and operation of atomic plants. Only state-owned companies would be allowed to build, operate and shut such plants. The country plans to operate its first one in 2045.
The Bill differentiates between “renewables” – wind, solar, geothermal, hydropower, biomass and a few other small technologies – and “new energy”, which includes nuclear, hydrogen and several coal-based technologies, while carving out room for both to aid in the transition. Indonesia is building its first coal gasification plant that will start operating in 2024.
The government seeks to ensure renewable energy investments would benefit surrounding communities. Companies must prioritise the use of local workers as well as domestically sourced materials, while investors are expected to transfer their technology to local workers. Companies must also prevent pollution and have recovery plans in place if their operations lead to environmental damage.
A worker wearing a face mask works on a production line manufacturing bicycle steel rim at a factory, as the country is hit by the novel coronavirus outbreak, in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China March 2, 2020. Image: China Daily via REUTERS
SHANGHAI : China is rolling out so-called low carbon transition bonds to help companies become greener, the country’s interbank bond market regulator said on Monday, as Beijing strives toward carbon neutrality.
Under the pilot scheme, companies in eight sectors including electric power, steelmaking, petrochemicals and civil aviation will issue bonds to fund decarbonisation efforts, the National Association of Financial Market Institutional Investors (NAFMII) said in a statement.
Such debt instruments supplement green bonds, and are part of China’s sustainable financing, said NAFMII, which is supervised by China’s central bank.
China, the world’s biggest producer of climate warming greenhouse gas, has pledged to bring its emissions to a peak before 2030 and to become carbon neutral by 2060.
Proceeds from the transition bonds will be used to fund green efforts including cleaner coal production, the application of green technologies and the use of natural gas and clean energy, NAFMII said.
Companies including China Huaneng Group Co, Hualu Holdings and Baosteel have already issued China’s first low carbon transition bonds, the Shanghai Securities News reported on Monday.
SINGAPORE – OCBC Bank will invest more than $25 million to reduce its carbon footprint in Singapore, Malaysia and Greater China.
The investments will fund energy-efficient technology to reduce carbon emissions, and invest in solar energy systems that will increase renewables in its energy mix, it said in a media release on Wednesday (May 25).
In all, the investments will reduce approximately 10,000 tonnes of carbon emissions within the next four years, or the equivalent of close to removing 10,000 cars off the road for four years.
To improve energy efficiency, OCBC will retrofit its buildings and a data centre with more energy-efficient technologies, including the use of LED lights over conventional lighting and more energy-efficient air-conditioning systems.
The lender’s regional data centre will also implement a rack-based cooling system by the end of this year.
OCBC Bank had announced last month that it will retrofit the air-conditioning system at OCBC Tampines Centre Two, which is located in Tampines Avenue 4, to connect to SP Group’s district cooling network at Tampines Town Centre.
The cooling system will be operational in the first half of 2025.
OCBC also aims to achieve Green Mark certifications for all its retail branches by 2030.
As of last month, four branches and eight buildings, including its learning and development hub, OCBC Campus in Tanjong Pagar, have received Green Mark certifications.
To advance the shift to renewable energy, the lender will install solar energy systems in about 10 buildings in Singapore, Malaysia and Greater China by 2024.
The energy that will be generated each year – over 2,000 MWh – will help offset the bank’s energy consumption in these markets.
The energy savings can power more than 600 three-room HDB households every year.
OCBC Bank will also assess if it can install solar energy systems in other offices in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Greater China.
Other initiatives include converting its fleet of cars to electric vehicles (EV) and deploying EV charging facilities at major commercial buildings it manages.
Ten charging points have already been installed at OCBC Centre, making it the largest EV charging hub in the business district.
Mr Lim Khiang Tong, group chief operating officer of OCBC Bank, said that everybody must do their part to build a sustainable future.
On its part, OCBC has committed to achieve carbon neutrality in operational emissions from this year.
In 2019, the lender committed to no longer finance new coal-fired power plants, becoming the first bank in South-east Asia to do so.
It has also exceeded its target of extending $25 billion in sustainability-linked and green loans by 2025.
At the end of last year, the lender has extended more than $34 billion of sustainable financing to customers, prompting it to raise the target to $50 billion by 2025.
UN Secretary General António Guterres said the report laid out ‘a litany of broken climate promises’ by business and governments.Image: Faces Of The World/Flickr
Photovoltaics can wipe out 4.25 billion tons of carbon emissions every year this decade, according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Even so, the actions announced so far remain way short of what is needed, with capital flows to fossil fuels still greater than the cash directed toward combating climate change.
The latest doom-laden report issued by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has highlighted solar as having the biggest potential for energy sector emission reduction this decade.
The “Climate Change 2022 Mitigation of Climate Change” document published yesterday by the IPCC estimated solar panels could reduce carbon emissions by 4.25 gigatons per year this decade, with more than half that potential at a lower cost than reference electricity prices, rising to an additional $50 to $100 per ton of CO2 abated. The report noted, however, that estimate does not include the cost of integrating solar into electric grids.
That carbon emission reduction potential compares to around a billion tons per year abated by industrial materials efficiency; 750 million tons per year from each of building-hosted renewables, such as rooftop solar, and light-duty electric vehicles (EVs), such as passenger cars; and around 250 million tons from heavy-duty EVs, including e-buses.
Reiterating the 85% price falls seen for solar in the last decade – and the tenfold rise in deployment volumes – the report stated renewables will remain the best-cost option for generation this decade but will require greater sector coupling and use of energy storage, smart grids, demand-side management, and green hydrogen and its derivatives to fulfill its potential to drive down energy sector carbon emissions.
Only supporting policy, technology availability, finance, and public and political support will enable the ironing out of global imbalances which, for instance, have seen such low take-up of solar in sub-Saharan Africa, the IPCC noted.
The critical importance of the energy sector’s workhorse role in limiting global temperature rises this century was emphasized by the authors of the 64-page policymaker summary of the full, 3,675-page report. “In modeled global pathways that limit warming to 2 C … or lower, most remaining fossil fuel CO2 emissions until the time of global net zero CO2 emissions are projected to occur outside the power sector, mainly in industry and transport,” they wrote.
The study estimated transport will be unable to hit net-zero this century, despite the low-carbon contributions of EVs, green hydrogen and derivatives such as ammonia and synthetic fuel (synfuel). That means negative carbon emissions will have to be found in other sectors, including from the direct capture of carbon from the air, which the IPCC said would make a contribution of less than 1% to the greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction efforts in its renewables-heavy future scenario.
While green hydrogen and its associated fuels will have to come down in price, the report stated: “Electric vehicles powered by low-emissions electricity offer the largest decarbonization potential for land-based transport, on a life cycle basis.” The document added, more will have to be invested in EV infrastructure, and raw materials supply fears will have to be addressed by resource diversification, circular materials flows, and energy and material efficiency improvements.
While electrification can make a contribution to carbon reduction from short haul shipping and aviation, the sector will need to have much more ambitious climate change aims and governance to do its part, the IPCC stated.
The crucial role to be played by low-carbon electricity and energy carriers in reducing the CO2 footprint of global transport is a notable example of the sector coupling called for by the UN body.
Demand management, materials and energy efficiency, circular material flows, and hydrogen will all be needed to decarbonize industry, with synfuels, ammonia and heat pumps making a contribution in light industry, mining, and manufacturing, the report stated.
The IPCC also noted the potential for renewable energy resource-rich areas of the globe to claim new chemicals and steel industry facilities, as has been noted by African commentators who oppose the idea of exporting all African hydrogen.
Solar can also play a part in reducing the carbon footprint of buildings, through retrofitting in established global cities and as stipulated in building codes which could green the building materials supply chain in emerging urban centers. The report stated: “The 2020-2030 decade is critical for accelerating the learning of knowhow, building the technical and institutional capacity, setting the appropriate governance structures, ensuring the flow of finance, and in developing the skills needed to fully capture the mitigation potential of buildings.”
The IPCC reiterated a familiar refrain, that the world must invest three to six times more on climate change mitigation and adaptation to stay below a two-degree temperature rise this century, depending on the scenario modeled. The biggest funding shortfall in such measures concerns the agriculture and forestry sector, the report noted, an industry where more intensive farming and production for less meat-intensive diets could free up more sites for solar and wind plants.
The study said carbon pricing has proven useful to drive emission reductions from low-cost technologies but less so for the more expensive measures needed for hard-to-abate sectors such as industry. The report’s authors did take encouragement, however, from a lack of evidence emissions trading schemes had led to carbon leakage, thanks to their design.
As far as paying the bill to stave off catastrophic climate change, pushing the developed world to meet its commitment to provide $100 billion per year to developing countries would be a start, as would sharing, and thereby reducing, investment risk in developing markets, the IPCC added.
And the cost of not coughing up? According to the study, the policies in place around the world at the end of 2020 have us on target for a 3.2 C average temperature rise this century.
SINGAPORE – Singapore’s power sector now produces about 40 per cent of the country’s emissions, but the sector could realistically bring this down to net zero by 2050, said a new report published on Tuesday (March 22).
The Energy 2050 Committee report, commissioned by industry regulator Energy Market Authority (EMA), said achieving this target can be done in ways that will neither compromise Singapore’s energy security nor affordability.
Importing more clean energy into Singapore through regional power grids, developing infrastructure suitable for clean-burning hydrogen to be used as a fuel and maximising solar panel deployment are some of the strategies the report recommended, with inputs from energy experts.
The report comes after Singapore announced last month that it will aim for national emissions to reach net zero “by or around” that same mid-century timeline.
Most of Singapore’s energy is generated by natural gas, a fossil fuel, which means burning it produces planet-warming emissions into the atmosphere.
The power sector accounts for about 40 per cent of the country’s total emissions currently. About 45 per cent of national emissions comes from the industrial sector, while land transport here makes up about 14 per cent of the total emissions inventory.
But the power sector is likely to contribute a larger percentage to Singapore’s emissions in the years ahead, especially with the move towards digitalisation and the electrification of vehicles here.
So if the emissions from the power sector can be tapered down to net zero, it would put the Republic in a better position to achieve its climate targets.
In the foreword of the 55-page report, EMA chairman Richard Lim said: “The world is now at an inflection point, with the global imperative of addressing climate change driving a shift towards a low-carbon future.”
Singapore is committed towards this global endeavour, he said, adding that the energy sector will have to play a significant part in the nation’s decarbonisation efforts.
Mr Lim, highlighting how Singapore lacks natural resources and the ability to access other forms of renewable energy other than solar, said the energy transition will require a clear-minded weighing of the trade-offs across energy security, energy affordability, and environmental sustainability.
The report by the committee – which comprises nine representatives from academia, policy and industry, who also consulted other energy experts on their views – sets out nine strategies in total for Singapore’s power sector to achieve its net-zero target. The strategies include keeping abreast of research into emerging low-carbon technologies, such as nuclear or carbon capture; buying international carbon credits to offset emissions from any fossil fuels that have to be burned locally; managing energy demand; and leveraging digital technologies.
Development of multi-layered grids; and shaping end user consumption through demand-side technologies, such as smart energy management systems, are also recommended.
Singapore’s current electricity grid is largely a single-layered one, where electricity produced by generation companies flow into the national grid that households and businesses draw on.
But there could be other sources of energy in a multi-layered grid, such as solar panels atop a building, for example.
In such a situation, there is a two-way flow of electricity, from the national grid to the users who may need energy during periods where the sun does not shine, for instance. Users can also sell electricity back to a multi-layered grid, during periods when their solar panels generate more than enough electricity to meet their needs.
Developing such a multi-layered grid, however, will require new systems and protocols to ensure electricity reliability and to more accurately match customer needs, the report noted. For example, this could include solid-state transformers and energy routers which will enable the control of bi-directional electricity flow.
Overall, pursuing the nine different strategies set out in the report will enable Singapore’s power sector to stay nimble and in a good position to achieve its target despite the uncertainty in geopolitics and technological developments.
Chairman of the Energy 2050 Committee Choi Shing Kwok, who is also director and chief executive officer of research centre ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, said the report found that Singapore’s effort to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels over the next 30 years will be complex, with uncertainties around the options that will be available to Singapore.
Mr Choi, a former permanent secretary for the environment and water resources, added: “Given this, it is not possible to craft a single definitive long-term strategy today. Instead, Singapore will have to stay nimble… to constantly identify forks in the road and make investments at appropriate junctures to be well-positioned for new pathways as they open up.”
The report charted out three potential scenarios on the power sector’s path to net-zero emissions by 2050.
In the most optimistic scenario, energy and digital technologies develop rapidly and are complemented by strong global cooperation. This enables Singapore to achieve a diverse energy supply mix in 2050, with the ability to import energy from multiple countries and use low-carbon hydrogen as a key energy source.
Hydrogen is considered a clean fuel as it does not produce carbon dioxide when burnt. Technologies to store and generate hydrogen from renewable energy sources are still nascent, but this scenario assumes that research into this will provide answers.
A second scenario assumes a longer path to Covid-19 recovery, delaying investments into clean energy technologies that lead to a stagnation in new developments. However, countries band together, allowing Singapore to import clean energy generated elsewhere to meet its needs.
In this scenario, natural gas still features in Singapore’s energy mix, although emissions are offset through the purchase of carbon credits from elsewhere.
Lastly, a third scenario assumes that the world is fragmented, and technology advancement is delayed but eventually pays off. Electricity imports contribute to the mix but their share of Singapore’s energy mix is limited due to the slow development of the regional grid, the report said.
But Singapore, building on its earlier investments, can start deploying other low-carbon alternatives, such as nuclear energy, to diversify its supply mix and is well-positioned to scale them up further when they become more commercially competitive.
The report by the Energy 2050 Committee was commissioned by EMA in end-2020 to plan for the long-term future of Singapore’s energy sector.
The committee is made up of members from three areas of expertise – technology and technology management, business and sustainable economy as well as policymaking.
It is chaired by Mr Choi and comprises nine members, including Mr Frank Phuan, co-founder of renewable energy firm Sunseap Group; Professor Chua Kee Chaing, president of the Singapore Institute of Technology; and Mr Hugh Lim, executive director at the Ministry of National Development’s Centre for Liveable Cities.
A spokesman for EMA said it will further study the recommendations in the committee’s report and announce new developments when ready.
Asked what Singapore’s efforts to decarbonise the power sector would mean for electricity prices, the spokesman added that EMA will study the different options outlined in the report to ensure this is done in the most cost-efficient manner while ensuring reliability.
But she added that trade-offs are inevitable.
“We will need to invest in infrastructure and technology, which may be costly and likely to lead to higher electricity costs,” said the spokesman.
“We will pace and manage the transition to ensure that electricity remains affordable and provide targeted assistance to vulnerable groups.”
SINGAPORE – Hotels here have been urged to recycle food waste and install solar panels and water meters for conservation, among other measures, as part of the industry’s first green plan to meet the larger goals of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.
They should start to track carbon emissions by next year and reduce them by 2030.
The targets, outlined in the Hotel Sustainability Roadmap launched on Monday (March 21), have been set by the Singapore Hotel Association and Singapore Tourism Board (STB). The road map is believed to be the first of its kind in the world.
Speaking at the launch at the Hotel Sustainability Conference and Marketplace that took place at Sands Expo and Convention Centre, Minister of State for Trade and Industry Alvin Tan said the road map is meant to outline strategies for the hotel industry, and also align sustainability efforts across hotels for greater impact.
A green hotel, for example, is one that is built with sustainable materials, deploys smart automated solutions to optimise resources and influences hotel guests to be environmentally-conscious travellers.
“This is not merely a pipe dream made up of far-fetched ideas. This can be a reality across all hotels here in Singapore,” said Mr Tan.
Another aim set out in the road map is for 60 per cent of hotel rooms to attain internationally recognised hotel sustainability certifications by 2025.
Four focus areas have been identified in the road map to ensure that the hotels’ sustainability efforts will result in impactful environmental outcomes.
These are: water conservation, waste management, recycling and the circular economy, which can involve practices such as using artificial intelligence to power food waste solutions.
Other focus areas include energy conservation, such as by using solar panels, and sustainable sourcing and procurement, such as by using locally sourced produce.
The road map also sets out strategies and initiatives to help hotels reach these targets.
For example, they can tap STB’s funds to support their sustainability initiatives, or partner Enterprise Singapore through the Sustainability Marketplace.
The marketplace, which was also launched on Monday, has roped in about 20 companies to provide solutions to help hotels become more sustainable.
Going green can present significant economic opportunities for the tourism sector, allowing hotels to gain a competitive advantage to thrive, Mr Tan said.
For example, they can cut costs by managing resources more efficiently, and see greater consumer demand from like-minded customers.
One key trend that has emerged from the pandemic is the rise of the “conscious traveller”.
More than 80 per cent of travellers now believe that sustainable travel is important, and are willing to pay more for sustainable accommodation options, said Mr Tan.
Some hotels have already started greening their operations, including Marina Bay Sands.
Efforts to go green need not always require heavy investment in equipment or infrastructure. Smaller investments, such as using energy-efficient light bulbs, can also count, he said.
But cost still remains a challenge for a hotel when implementing new solutions.
Mr Gino Tan, country general manager for The Fullerton Hotels and Resorts, said: “There is going to be significant costs in our purchasing, especially when we move towards biodegradable products, whether it is in-room amenities or sourcing for sustainable food.”
Biodegradable items tend to cost significantly more than disposables because of the raw materials used and how they are processed.
The hotel chain aims to install drinkable water dispensers in guest rooms, as opposed to providing disposable cartons of water.
Other challenges are convincing stakeholders of the hotel to invest in sustainable solutions and finding sustainable products that are of quality, said Ms Wee Wei Ling, executive director of sustainability partnerships, lifestyle and asset at Pan Pacific Hotels Group.
But the group will put in sustainability features for its new hotel, Pan Pacific Orchard, opening next year. This includes using solar panels to power lighting for its indoor gardens.
Others, like the Grand Hyatt Singapore, will also be setting up a laundry water recycling plant in the hotel, which can reduce water usage by about 30 per cent.
The International Energy Agency pinpoints coal use as being the main driver behind the growth.
Even though coal use jumped, the IEA also notes how renewables and nuclear managed to supply a bigger share of electricity generation than the fossil fuel in 2021.
While it remains an important source of electricity, coal has a substantial effect on the environment.
Energy-related carbon dioxide emissions rose to their highest level in history last year, according to the International Energy Agency, as economies rebounded from the coronavirus pandemic with a heavy reliance on coal.
The IEA found energy-related global CO2 emissions increased by 6% in 2021 to reach a record high of 36.3 billion metric tons. In an analysis published Tuesday, the Paris-based organization pinpointed coal use as being the main driver behind the growth.
“The recovery of energy demand in 2021 was compounded by adverse weather and energy market conditions – notably the spikes in natural gas prices – which led to more coal being burned despite renewable power generation registering its largest ever growth,” the IEA said.
The energy agency said its estimate was based on fuel-by-fuel and region-by-region analysis. Breaking its findings down, it said coal was responsible for more than 40% of overall growth in worldwide CO2 emissions last year, hitting a record of 15.3 billion metric tons.
“CO2 emissions from natural gas rebounded well above their 2019 levels to 7.5 billion tonnes,” the IEA said, adding that CO2 emissions from oil came in at 10.7 billion metric tons. The emissions from oil were “significantly below pre-pandemic levels” due to “the limited recovery in global transport activity in 2021, mainly in the aviation sector.”
China played a significant role in the emissions rise, according to the IEA. “The rebound of global CO2 emissions above pre-pandemic levels has largely been driven by China, where they increased by 750 million tonnes between 2019 and 2021,” it said.
“In 2021 alone, China’s CO2 emissions rose above 11.9 billion tonnes, accounting for 33% of the global total,” it said.
Even though coal use jumped, the IEA also noted how renewables and nuclear managed to supply a bigger share of electricity generation than fossil fuels in 2021. Generation based on renewables exceeded 8,000 terawatt-hours last year, which the IEA described as “an all-time high.”
While it remains an important source of electricity, coal has a substantial effect on the environment.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration lists a range of emissions from coal combustion. These include carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, particulates and nitrogen oxides. Elsewhere, Greenpeace has described coal as “the dirtiest, most polluting way of producing energy.”
The IEA said it was now clear the economic recovery from Covid-19 had not been a sustainable one. “The world must now ensure that the global rebound in emissions in 2021 was a one-off – and that an accelerated energy transition contributes to global energy security and lower energy prices for consumers,” it said.
The IEA’s findings point to the Herculean task of achieving the goals laid out in the 2015 Paris Agreement and more recent Glasgow Climate Pact. While major economies are attempting to ramp up renewable energy capacity, the world remains heavily reliant on fossil fuels.
In the past few weeks, this sobering reality has been thrown into sharp relief by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, not least because Russia was the biggest supplier of both petroleum oils and natural gas to the EU last year, according to Eurostat.
On Tuesday the EU’s executive branch, the European Commission, published what it called “an outline of a plan to make Europe independent from Russian fossil fuels well before” the end of the decade.
“We must become independent from Russian oil, coal and gas,” the Commission’s president, Ursula von der Leyen, said. “We simply cannot rely on a supplier who explicitly threatens us.”
The Commission’s announcement came after the IEA said the EU should not enter into any new gas supply contracts with Russia in order to lower its dependence on Russian natural gas.
At a time when floods, wildfires, and other climate-related disasters have become more frequent and destructive than ever, the global construction industry, which has long been criticized for its carbon emissions, is moving towards a more sustainable future. In China, a government initiative and a growing eco-conscious public are major factors in heralding green buildings.
With global temperatures soaring as a result of high levels of carbon emissions from industrial and other sources, the world, right now, is facing an environmental emergency of unparalleled magnitude. At a time of crisis, it is increasingly understood that a transition to a low-carbon economy is necessary, and that the building and construction industry, which accounts for 36% of global energy use and 39% of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions annually, should play a critical role in this shift.
The takeaway? There’s never been a more crucial — and thrilling — time for design professionals and architects to explore greener and more sustainable practices. This is especially true in China, where climate and energy policies have increasingly taken center stage in the central government’s plans.
Sustainable architecture is a broad term that refers to buildings designed to minimize humanity’s negative impact on the environment. As an alternative approach to modern-day building, this eco-friendly way of thinking can be applied to virtually every aspect of the design and construction process, including the choice of building materials and finishes, the use of renewable energy, the integration of the built environment into the natural landscape, and a series of other green considerations.
Understanding sustainable architecture
“Sustainable design is a search for a natural alliance by necessity,” explains Dr. Adam Brillhart, an assistant professor in the Department of Architecture at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University.
Although many of the practices and principles used in sustainable architecture are rooted in ancient building techniques, it was not until the early 21st century that the concept of green buildings emerged in response to growing concerns about climate change. In recent years, as the idea of sustainability treaded to the forefront in many industries like fashion and automobiles, interest in sustainable design has grown exponentially among architects, with the green building market on track to be among the fastest-growing industries worldwide.
“Particularly in the built environment, sustainability emphasizes the benefits for future generations,” says Dr. Yiping Dong, an associate professor in the Department of Architecture at XJTLU.
Dong adds that sustainable principles can not only be applied to the design of modern buildings, they can also be used in restoration and renovation of historical architecture. “There are myriad ways that sustainability can be incorporated into the new design of old architecture, such as the use of green material, the reduction of carbon prints in the production process, and a variety of recycling techniques,” she says.
The green case for China
With up to 2 billion square meters constructed annually, China is the largest building construction market in the world, accounting for nearly half of new construction globally in the coming decade. At the same time, China’s 14th Five-Year Plan, formalized by the National People’s Congress (NPC) last year, aims to reduce “emissions intensity” — the amount of CO2 produced per unit of gross domestic product (GDP) — by 18% and sets a 13.5% reduction target for “energy intensity” over the period of 2021 to 2025.
Because China’s ongoing urbanization is slated to increase its energy consumption by as much as 40% in the next 15 years, Chinese policymakers have made advancing green building construction and renovation a top priority. According to Xinhua, in 2021, the total floor area of China’s green buildings exceeded 6.6 billion square meters amid the country’s efforts to promote high-quality development in urban and rural areas.
The country will “make continuous efforts to further increase the proportion of green buildings, raise building energy efficiency standards and popularize buildings with ultra-low energy consumption in regions with suitable climate conditions,” said Tian Guomin, a senior official with the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development.
Encouraged by the government’s vision, a growing cohort of Chinese architects have embraced sustainable design and incorporated its principles into an expanding list of projects throughout the country. Among them is Wang Shu, the first China-based architect to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the profession’s highest honor. His Amateur Architecture Studio, which Wang co-founded with his wife, Lu Wenyu, have designed a variety of buildings using materials salvaged from demolished houses. The Ningbo History Museum, one of Wang’s best-known creations, is largely composed of debris collected from the surrounding area, where traditional Chinese towns and villages were torn down to make room for new developments.
Having worked with Wang on several projects, Brillhart says that the renowned architect “best represents a sustainable approach for China,” where he “uses architecture as a way to connect to the social reality by fostering knowledge exchange around traditional material processes which are inherently sustainable.”
Meanwhile, a generation of young, passionate Chinese designers eager to help mitigate climate change are actively bringing an environmental sensibility to their work. Heading the effort is a group of teachers and students at XJTLU, who worked together with both overseas and domestic partners to compete in Solar Decathlon China 2021 (SDC 2021), an international competition where collegiate teams design and build solar-powered, net-zero energy buildings to push the boundaries of sustainability.
With 17 academics and over 60 students from different disciplines, the international partnership — led by XJTLU and named the Y-Team — has resulted in the creation of a fully solar-powered, sustainable house that’s currently on display in the northern Chinese city of Zhangjiakou, one of the three main events sites at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. The Y-Team is among the 15 finalist teams in the contest.
Speaking of his experience, Marco Cimillo, an associate professor at the Department of Architecture at XJTLU, who serves as the faculty lead of the Y-Team, says that “all aspects of the project were new and challenging” as the students had to work together remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the teachers had to familiarize themselves with “the complexity and technicalities of the full process, from conception to construction and monitoring.”
But despite the difficulties, Cimillo says that the project has been successful in that it has resulted in distinctive architectural outcomes and user experience. “We all learnt a lot and students had the opportunity to collaborate directly with sponsors and industry partners. The weeks spent on the construction site were an unforgettable experience and the building in the end does incorporate a number of pioneering features,” he says.
And it’s likely that the Y-Team’s house will have an impact outside the competition. “There are solutions in the final project that can be advanced relatively quickly and non-standard applications of existing technologies that can be easily replicated in other projects,” Cimillo says. “The ventilation system, for example, is quite standard in terms of components, but the way they are combined together allows to increase energy efficiency. Most contractors and workers involved in SDC have experienced similar developments, which is one of the many ways the initiative makes an impact on industry.”
Challenges for Chinese architects
For sustainable design to reach its full potential in China, the biggest obstacle is the cultural psyche of the population, according to Dr. Jiawen Han, who teaches multiple levels of design studio and architectural theory at XJTLU.
“A society that is driven by efficiency in every aspect conspicuously and dramatically changes the psychology of the people within that society. Although new governmental and architectural regulations are attempting to raise awareness of green buildings and encourage construction of them, the tangible benefits may not be easily recognizable to the general public,” she says. “Many of those who benefit the most from China’s rising affluence may still prefer to live in fancy apartments as a way to display their financial power and social status.”
Beyond a lack of demand, Chinese architects have other reasons to remain lukewarm on sustainable practices. “In architectural discipline, it is sometimes hard for architects to gain professional recognition as experts in green buildings. Instead, they are often categorized as technical experts rather than as talented designers,” Han says. “In addition, green buildings cannot always easily incorporate the aesthetics and symbols that appeal to the wider public, or are favored by certain developers in China.”
Echoing Han’s views, Dong argues that because consciousness on the clients’ end is not high for green building, and the cost of labor and energies like electricity remains on the low end, Chinese architects are hesitant to fully embrace sustainability in their design. But the situation can be turned around if financial or structural incentives are introduced to incentivize the market. “Personally, I feel the current driving stakeholder in the green building movement in China is the government,” Dong says.
Even without financial incentives introduced by the government, a growing awareness of sustainability in the sector of design education is accelerating the green transition. Through SDC and the Y-Project, Cimillo says that XJTLU’s School of Design is pursuing a variety of strategic directions for its educational model, including industry-education-research collaboration and the integration of theory with problem solving and project-based learning.
“We deem them critical to equip our graduates for the complexities of an increasingly articulated professional world. The new generation must have the ability to think collaboratively and out of the box to lead the transition to a more sustainably built environment and society, the greatest challenge of our time,” Cimillo says.