Change the way buildings consume energy in China

originally written for chinadialogue, now a blog post

Will China be able to fulfil its pledge to see carbon emissions peak by 2030?  The answer may largely depend on whether China can significantly improve energy efficiency in buildings, which currently account for more than 25% of China’s total energy use. And 2015 doesn’t seem to be a bad
start.

   In January, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural
Development (MOHURD) has announced a revision to the 2006 “Green
Building Evaluation Standard” to boost an ongoing effort to improve
energy efficiency in China’s buildings.

   Why buildings? In
China, they currently account for more than 25% of China’s total energy
use; add the consumption from construction stage, it takes more than 40%
of total use. With floorspace expected to double by 2050 and per-capita
energy demand likely to grow as China’s burgeoning middle class
increasingly prefer comfort over a tradition of energy-austerity, it
will be crucial to ensure efficient energy consumption in buildings old
and new.

   The new standard released this year by MOHURD is a
significant improvement on the 2006 original not just because it extends
coverage to all building types but also implements  efficiency
standards on the entire life-cycle of each building, including design,
construction, and operation & management of energy consumption. Pan
Zhiming, an Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC) said, the Chinese
government will continue the policy under the 12th Five Year Plan, which
requires new buildings to be 65% more energy efficient than those of
‘80s, to “dramatically increase the share of green buildings while
further raising the energy saving bar to move toward ultra-low or even
net zero energy buildings.”
   
       China’s strategy has been
twofold: first, enact a top-down “Three Star” rating system—similar to
the internationally recognised Leadership in Energy Efficiency Design
(LEED)—in the hope of stimulating activity in the market for green
buildings. There are state subsidies to incentivise investment in green
projects that can fulfil two and three-star—45 and 80 RMB per squared
metre, respectively—and, according to Pan, more and more cities are
starting to make one-star mandatory for all new public constructions.
The current Five Year Plan aims to put up 1 billion squared metres of
green building space by the end of this year, and the national target is
to see 30% of all new construction projects to be green by 2020.  

 
The entire life-cycle of a “green” building incorporates environmental
concerns, starting from what materials are used during construction to
how tenants manage water, electricity, and heat consumption. Most
importantly, a variety of technologies, like solar panels, rain-water
capture, etc. depending on the climate, needs to be installed to make
energy consumption as efficient as possible. The three-star Shenzhen
Institute of Building Research headquarters just happens to be a model,
consuming 45% less energy and 53% less water than local buildings. Less
exceptional, but more well-known examples include The Beijing Olympic
Village that received the LEED certification.
   
   Many
buildings in China do not follow such shining examples, merely compliant
with minimum energy codes. Residential building have poor
insulation—windows, walls, and doors—that keep blood-letting heat, which
is a serious concern in the colder, northern Chinese cities like
Beijing, where buildings lose heat three to five times faster than
buildings in Canada or Japan. Large commercial buildings tend to use
whole-building HVAC systems that are highly consuming.

   Of
equal importance are retrofitting programs that aims to purge existing
buildings of inefficient energy-consuming structures—as a recent NRDC
study noted, just 5% of existing buildings meet efficiency standards.
The current FYP aims to retrofit 1 billion squared metres; opinion is
divided on how close the Plan came.

   However challenges
remain. Although China may be the second largest market for LEED
projects, developers are still put off by the upfront cost
of building eco-homes, which is high in China because many of the
components are subject to heavy tariff, Chris Twinn a
freelance green buildings specialist said. Furthermore, with the
slowing economy and declining home prices, potential long-term profit of
green buildings can often be ignored.

   Another challenge has
been lack of awareness and institutionalisation of the very concept of
green buildings, as Wei Jianguo, the current secretary general of CCIEE
said, “mayors, developers, and inspectors all have very little knowledge
on green buildings. They are not even familiar with regulations.” Yu
also reflected this point, saying that there were lack of testing and
rating system for green building materials, lack of an accreditation
program for green building professionals.
   
   This also makes
code enforcement difficult. Local authorities often lack the human
resources to inspect every single building in their jurisdiction,
raising questions on quality of on-site inspections, according to a
report by U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National
Laboratory.
   
   Although MOHURD’s annual compliance survey
recorded above 95% compliance rate for energy codes in both design and
construction stage in 2010, Sha Yu,  a senior research scientist
specialising on green buildings at the Pacific Northwest National
Laboratory (PNNL) has noted “problems with [the Ministry’s] compliance
assessment methodology”.  Furthermore, in second and third tier cities,
code compliances have particularly been poor, and in rural areas, where
half of China’s population reside, building codes have been largely
voluntary.
   
   Despite such barriers, one hint of hope has
been an increasing political momentum from the central government as the
smog continues to fill the skylines of Beijing. Indeed, as Pan pointed
out, the national green building act in 2013 has made green building
development “one of the national primary energy conservation
strategies.”
   
   Policy-makers outside of the central
government–who are often chastised for transgression—are also beginning
to come around, as Deborah Lehr, Senior Fellow at the Paulson Institute
pointed out, “the single most important thing the Chinese government
has done in the past two years is make the fact that they have to
implement sustainable practices, and environmentally sound practices, a
part of consideration for mayors’ promotion. So mayors have vested
interests in developing sustainability in cities.”

photo by flickr user “leniners”

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