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Wuxi-Düsseldorf and the Challenge of Green City Partnerships

At first glance, it isn’t an obvious pairing. Düsseldorf is the fashion and advertising capital of Germany. Wuxi is a fast-growing industrial city on China’s east coast, with probably more coal plants than catwalks. But a German environmental think-tank has linked the two together in an international exercise designed to encourage cities to pool experiences on cutting emissions and saving resources.

Delve a little deeper and the reasons for twinning these cities become clearer. Düsseldorf, located in Germany’s manufacturing heartlands, has shaken off its old guise as a base for heavy industry and transformed itself into a services-oriented economy. This offers a potential model for a similar shift in Wuxi, says Daniel Vallentin, project coordinator at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, which is overseeing the program. A consortium of Chinese research bodies, including Tsinghua University and the National Climate Center, is also involved.

Both cities, moreover, have proved themselves “proactive” on environmental policy. Wuxi, already the center of the Chinese solar-panel industry, was an early mover on adopting a low-carbon strategy and its carbon intensity target (emissions produced per unit of GDP) is higher than the nationwide goal.

This drive to clean up may have been spurred by an environmental disaster on the city’s doorstep, suggests Vallentin. Scenic Lake Tai, which splits Wuxi in two and is the heart of the local tourist industry, has been scarred in modern times by regular algal blooms that play havoc with the ecosystem. During the 2007 crisis, the worst to date, waste and untreated sewage triggered a massive outbreak of blue-green algae which swamped a water-treatment plant, cutting off supplies to 2 million people and driving tourists from Wuxi.

“It became very obvious that they had to do something to preserve that lake which also is important for economic reasons for the city. I think this might have been a trigger for an ambitious environmental policy, which overlapped to the low-carbon field,” says Vallentin.

Ambitious or not, Wuxi faces a mammoth decarbonizing challenge: the city’s emissions currently are higher than the whole of North Rhine-Westfalia—Germany’s most populous region—where Düsseldorf is located. The Wuppertal project aims to aid the process by bringing in lessons learned through Germany’s mitigation efforts and writing a low-carbon roadmap for the city. Its researchers already have produced an emissions inventory for Wuxi in a bid to reveal the extent of greenhouse-gas emissions and their sources.

Düsseldorf, meanwhile, hopes to gain insights into rapid upscaling of new technologies—electric vehicles, for example—and managing large infrastructure projects.

Very different places

While the two cities want to learn from each other, Vallentin admits that readily transferable solutions can be hard to come by when conditions on the ground are as different as those in Wuxi and Düsseldorf.

Even what is understood by concepts such as “sustainable” and “low-carbon” can vary dramatically. For example, in the German context, the Wuppertal Institute defines “low-carbon” as an emission level of 2 tons of CO2 per capita. For Wuxi—currently at 13 tons CO2 per capita and rising—such a target simply is out of range.

“If we were to tell them you should bring your emissions down to 2 tons per capita, that would be highly unrealistic,” says Vallentin. “Wuxi needs to enter a pathway where substantial reductions can be achieved, but the way they have to go is much longer than in the Düsseldorf region.”

Prospects of success also differ between sectors. Most emissions in Wuxi come from the power sector and industry. The former is comparatively easy to make inroads into, says Vallentin, simply because that is where most progress has been made elsewhere: “There are some solutions ready, and a lot of examples in other cities, both in China and other world regions, of how emissions could be brought down.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, therefore, the Wuxi city government has shown specific interest in Germany’s policies and projects to promote renewable energy. Officials have been particularly taken with its model of local and regional energy agencies, which offer information and advice to renewable investors, says Vallentin. Details of how to set up such institutions will go into the roadmap, and a visit by a Chinese delegation is in the offing.

The industrial challenge is trickier, says Vallentin—“because you have to transform the whole economic structure of the city.”

“This is one of the main challenges in Wuxi – how to make sure that steel production is less emissions intensive, how to optimise processes, what alternative products could be produced in the future that are less material intensive, all these kinds of things.” Avoiding carbon leakage, where ambitious environmental targets at local level simply drive high-emitting companies to relocate, is also an issue, he says.

A crowded market

The Wuxi-Düsseldorf tie-up is one of the latest city-to-city climate partnerships in what appears to be a growing trend. Advocates point out that urban areas produce 80% of global greenhouse gas emissions and often argue these focused hook-ups are a more effective way of making progress than international climate negotiations.

This approach is most famously represented by the C40 group, a network of megacities seeking solutions to climate change threats currently headed up by New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. But new examples are popping up all the time. Last month, Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City and Rotterdam in the Netherlands, both cities built on low-lying deltas and vulnerable to sea-level rise, signed a new agreement to cooperate on climate adaptation.

“Cities have to learn from each other so that not every single city has to go through its own process of trial and error,” says Vallentin.

In the case of Wuxi, he says, this learning process needs to focus as much on how to share experiences as concrete policies. “They already have a lot of regulations in place—command and control policies and standards—but mechanisms for knowledge sharing among different industry branches, this is something that’s still rather underdeveloped.”

The same could be said of China’s multitudinous green city projects. The idea of finding shortcuts to cleaner urban living has caught on in China quickly over the past decade and prompted a blooming of schemes, from eco-cities to low-carbon pilot zones to carbon-trading pilot cities, even something called the “fifth generation city”—the idea of leapfrogging to a modern, high-tech hub without the intervening polluting stages, currently applied to the ancient city of Kashgar.

But there’s a problem. As Vallentin puts it, “everyone is more or less working on his own.”

Vallentin admits the crowded, fragmented landscape presents a challenge—not just for his scheme, but for China more broadly. One of the key recommendations to come out of a workshop his team held in Beijing this year was the creation of an umbrella organization to promote dialogue between the country’s various sustainable urban programs.

This prompts another question, however: how likely are the project’s recommendations to be implemented? A common complaint about Chinese green city schemes is that, despite lofty ambitions, paper ideals fail to turn into reality. Plans for Dongtan, an energy self-sufficient, zero-emissions city destined for mudflats near Shanghai, were flattened by a local corruption scandal. Another “model village”, Huangbaiyu, in Liaoning province, fell far short of promised standards and surpassed the budget to the extent many locals couldn’t afford to live there.

Meanwhile, researchers have found little evidence of greener habits in China’s low-carbon pilot cities and, in a recent evaluation of China’s designated low-carbon industrial parks by the U.S. Institute for Sustainable Communities, none hit the pass mark of 60%.

In the case of the Wuxi-Düsseldorf collaboration, the project is set to end before implementation even starts. “Like many city projects in China, this is one of our main flaws,” says Vallentin. “Our funding reaches until the production of a roadmap but ends when it comes to implementing this roadmap…then it’s up to the Wuxi city government to follow up.”

The level of interest from the Wuxi partners makes him confident their findings will have an impact. But there are already hints implementation could be as much of a problem here as anywhere in China: the emissions inventory exercise uncovered serious gaps in the city’s data on greenhouse-gas pollution, for example in the transport and agricultural sectors, but so far there has been little movement to do anything about it.

“It’s a very complex task to provide those data because different departments would have to be involved in the process to collect the data for the different sectors,” says Vallentin. “My impression is they are rather reluctant to touch this at the moment.”

Other questions about the degree to which Chinese officials are open to frank discussion remain. Wuxi is home to Suntech, China’s largest manufacturer of solar panels—now bankrupt. You might expect the collapse of a local company at the heart of the clean-tech sector to be central to discussions about Wuxi’s green future, but at recent meetings, explains Vallentin, the “highly sensitive” issue was quietly sidestepped.