Birds fly in and out of the eight-storey “Green Office Building” in Shenzhen, China, because a third of its walls are completely open to the air. It’s a clever natural design that enables the building to stay cool without air conditioners.
Across town, in a vast campus known as the “Low Carbon Park”, mist is sprayed into the air to cool the streets down and remove dust. Experiments like these are appearing across China’s cities, as part of a devolution of power designed to clean up smoggy air and meet energy targets to tackle climate change.
Here’s the big idea: cities use more energy per capita than the rest of China and are home to polluting industries, so could rethinking them help clean the air?
City-level officials are hugely important in the Chinese system, empowered to grow the economy and develop industries. But the government now wants them to lead the fight against air pollution.
Strict new air quality standards were rolled out in 2014. That came on top of an even more experimental programme imposing energy targets on cities and encouraging them to try new solutions to meet them.
Shenzhen was one of first batch of these “Low Carbon Cities”. The Communist Party called it a “new concept of urban development”.
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Nearly a decade after the programme began, not all the cities have made progress – and some are still among the country’s most polluted. But Shenzhen is attracting attention for having reduced its average air pollution by around 50%, according to city authorities.
So how did they do it?
The city borders Hong Kong and with 11 million residents, it’s one of the country’s boomtowns. It’s also home to the world’s third largest container port.
Standing amid hundreds of cranes, Wang Yihong of Shenzhen Shekou Port explains that emissions have been brought down through all sorts of small changes.
For example, when diesel-powered ships enter port, they now have to switch off their engines – and instead use clean electricity that the port sends through a cable. “When the vessel gets alongside, we will supply the electricity from the shore to help them navigate and shut down their diesel engines,” says Wang Yihong.