Even though China’s skies are gray and waters run red, there is cause for hope that the country’s “long green march” will have a blue sky ending — thanks to the unique way China deploys new clean technologies and practices.

Since opening to the West, China has developed a refined process of piloting at city scale.  Today these local piloting efforts allow China, more than any other country, to quickly try new environmental and sustainable initiatives and move successful ones toward wider implementation.

The history of these efforts dates back to 1979, when China introduced three economic development zones that experimented locally with ideas such as local elections and internationalization of currencies. The success of those initial three zones led to the expansion of the zones to 14 cities in 1984. Today there are 253 economic development zones across the country.

Such city-level experimentation has driven progress across China, and is now being used for a broad range of sustainable technology and policy pilots. And this has all taken place during a 40-year urbanization spurt. China is now building the equivalent of every building in Canada each year — or half the new construction worldwide (about 2 billion square meters annually).

China is throwing spaghetti at the wall, so to speak, one city at a time to see which eco-models work, and is systematically doing so with every promising green technology — moving from pilots to demonstrations to commercialization. At TEDxChCh, I spoke about how this is changing the country from the factory of the world to the clean tech laboratory of the world, and the only country able to experiment with green models on a gigascale.

On June 1, 2008, China banned free plastic bags in grocery stores across the country. The policy has led to at least 67 billion fewer bags in its first five years.

When China’s technocrats recognize a promising policy or technology, they identify an initial set of regions in which to run pilots. As a recent example, in June 2013 Shenzhen became the first of seven regional pilots to start carbon-trading schemes that will help China cut carbon dioxide emissions per unit GDP by 40 to 45 percent by 2020, compared with 2005 levels.

Once initial pilots gain traction, more regions are picked to expand testing. After my nonprofit JUCCCE created a coalition of international experts to introduce the concept of smart grid to China in 2007, China’s main utility, the State Grid Corporation of China, was spurred to announce a road map to implement “strong smart grid” by 2020 across the country. Fifteen city-level pilots were selected in 2010. In 2011, SGCC announced an additional planned investment of $100 billion into smart grid technologies.

When pilots prove successful, China has the power to swiftly implement them nationwide. On June 1, 2008, for example, China banned free plastic bags in grocery stores across the country. According to the National Development and Reform Commission, the policy has led to at least 67 billion fewer bags, saving an equivalent of 6 million tons of oil, in its first five years. Although customers can still buy the bags, use of plastic bags has dropped by more than two-thirds. Prior to the ban, each day saw China using an estimated 3 billion plastic bags, which created more than 3 million metric tons of garbage.

But not all experiments end well. In fact, it is understood and built into the system that most of these city pilots will not be models of success. In the run-up to the 2008 oil price spike, China turned to a controversial process of transforming coal into oil (coal-to-liquid, or CTL). Billions of dollars were put toward this commercially nonviable technology that hogs energy and water and produces twice as much CO2 as conventional oil. Today only the largest of 27 projects still stands to provide continued learning about the process. Billions of dollars were lost, but as an entrepreneur, I value a society that encourages big risks and learns quickly from its mistakes.

Much of the funding and encouragement for city pilots comes from the central government in edicts such as the “12th Five-Year Plan” (for the years 2011 to 2015). These set economic and development targets that local leaders have to reach in their own way. Local innovation is necessary because no road map is laid out for them. According to the most recent plan, by the end of 2015 energy consumption per unit of GDP is to be lowered 16 percent from 2010 levels, while CO2 emissions per unit of GDP are to be lowered 17 percent.

In traveling the world to speak about China’s sustainability landscape, I have yet to encounter a country with a training program for government leaders that rivals China’s.

Another plan, the National Green Building Action Plan, states that 30 percent of all new construction in China will be green buildings by 2020. Developers receive a subsidy of about $7 per square meter for two-star rated buildings, and $13 for three-star.

Each local leader has the flexibility and responsibility to customize a local solution to reach these targets. The pilots that are successful bring glory to the city, promotions to the leaders and the opportunity to see efforts realized and recognized on a national scale — creating a great incentive to go green as fast as possible.

Sometimes, these efforts can be misdirected. For example, a plan to import soil to plant non-native trees over miles of highways in Dongying’s salty wetlands in order to increase “greenery” is more a vanity project than a reforestation effort. But leaders are constantly trying to localize best practices, instead of imitate international efforts, so they don’t repeat mistakes already made in the West. They are actively looking for case studies and solution providers to help implement sustainability solutions at scale, and government-sponsored trainings provide support and inspiration.

For international technology companies, this system represents the largest market in the world for environmental solutions. For other nations, China’s experimentation means that promising innovations can be commercialized faster and brought to market at lower prices with economies of scale.

Training Leaders for Success

In traveling the world to speak about China’s sustainability landscape, I have yet to encounter a country with a training program for government leaders that rivals China’s. All government leaders (“Gan Bu”) must take 12 days of leadership development training each year. Every five years, they must have taken a total of three months of training. Can you imagine the mayors of New York City or Vancouver in a full-time class for two to four weeks a year?

This mandatory training is run by the powerful Central Organization Department, which is essentially the human resources department of the Communist government. Students come from central government, local government and state-owned enterprises. The courses are now also open to private companies and foreign governments. For example, African leaders regularly attend special classes customized for them. As a curriculum development partner, JUCCCE has trained close to 600 leaders at three of the COD’s academies, from mayors to central government bureau heads.

The COD not only dictates training content but also promotions for government leaders. This information distribution channel into the heart of power of China is an effective way to introduce new Party memes, best practices and technologies.

While the leaders of other countries are still debating whether to act on climate change, China is focused on getting its leaders to deal with retrofits, rejuvenation and adaptation.

The agendas of these academies can give you an idea of what’s most important to the government. Over the past five years, JUCCCE has seen these schools steadily increase their sustainability offerings. For example, topics have quickly moved from why we need green buildings to building low-carbon green cities.

JUCCCE’s course offerings have expanded to include energy master planning, renewable energy, low carbon transportation, municipal waste and water treatment, district heating and cooling, and ecoheritage tourism. This year we introduced classes in sustainable retail and sustainable lifestyle. We’re now developing new courses in social spaces and climate resilient city design.

This is a significant indicator that China’s government is trying to get all their ranks in line for this “long green march.”

A director of the China Executive Leadership Academy of Pudong said that each cycle of leaders has become more and more sophisticated. Instead of needing a primer about climate change, many of them now know climate change is caused by humans and believe China needs to act faster in addressing it. While the leaders of other countries are still debating whether to act on climate change, China is focused on getting its leaders to deal with retrofits, rejuvenation and adaptation.

One local leader from Mentougou, a district of western Beijing that is geographically larger than Los Angeles, attended JUCCCE’s ecoheritage tourism class in 2012. A month and a half later she invited JUCCCE to meet with the entire local government. Today, the government is in the midst of rejuvenating the entire district around ecoheritage master plans.

Mentougou’s enthusiasm to reinvent itself is typical of the urbanization happening in China. Despite being a large district, Mentougou still wrestles with an outflow of talent leaving to look for employment in bigger cities, with 350 million people expected to move to cities within 20 years. To rebrand their smaller cities, local leaders have become increasingly aggressive in recruiting green industry and striving to make their cities models of low-carbon living. Mentougou is now betting on its natural gorges and water features to attract wealthy Beijing weekenders with “green living” and the development of new ecotourism features to provide green jobs.

None of this is to minimize the fact that many stars need to align to tackle China’s tremendous annual emissions of around 8 to 9 billion metric tons of CO2 equivalent — a quarter of the world’s total.

And a huge challenge now faces China when it comes to financing all this experimentation. Environmental solutions are capital intensive. After several decades of infrastructure investment, Chinese cities are now largely out of money, and land sales that generate revenue have slowed. Cities are now looking to different forms of public-private partnerships to fund development.

Still, I am optimistic about the longer term trends in China toward a greener society. The country’s unique capability to move sustainability ideas to a gigascale offers unique opportunity for massive change. For those who doubt that innovation is happening in China, it is. It’s simply happening at a bigger scale than you might be used to. View Ensia homepage

Related content: Peggy Liu talks about building a new “China Dream” at Ensia Live 2013

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