World Resources Institute WRI

China`s Urban Billion: Energy use and greenhouse gases

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China’s Urban Billion is a blog series exploring China’s urbanization process. Xiaomei Tan guides readers through China’s opportunities and challenges as the country transforms into an urbanized society. She examines the urbanization process as it relates to governance, the private and public sectors, and the economy. This piece originally appeared on

Consumption of energy in Chinese cities has risen faster than all other sectors over the last 20 years, including the industrial, transport, and agricultural sectors. In China, urban residents’ per capita energy consumption has consistently outpaced the national average and that of rural residents in the past decade.

Corresponding to the higher-than-average energy consumption, urban residents’ greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per capita are much higher than the national average as well. A National Geographic chart (see below) comparing country-wide GHG emissions with that of cities shows that Beijing is one of few cities that experiences a reverse city-country gap in GHG emissions, i.e. people use more energy per capita in cities than in rural areas. Most other Chinese cities share the same odd characteristic. In other countries, city-living is usually less energy intensive.

There are many reasons behind China’s exceptionally energy- and carbon- intensive urbanization process. An important and unique reason is that China’s urbanization is accompanied by substantial industrialization. In the past three decades, millions of rural residents have flocked to Chinese cities following job opportunities created in association with the China becoming the “factory of the world”. Partly, it is the global demand for made-in-China products that led to China’s rapid urbanization. The combination of urban expansion and industrial growth means that China’s urbanization is not only productive but also energy- and resource- intensive.

There are other reasons, not unique to China, that its urbanization process has become so carbon intensive: enormous increases in household appliance ownership, rapid growth in private car and motorcycle ownership, little incorporation of new energy- and material-conserving technologies into the buildings, and large-scale construction of urban infrastructure, such as large highways, overpasses, and shopping malls.

Most Chinese cities do not have comprehensive institutional set-ups to plan, implement, and enforce energy-efficient policies and regulations. Although local Development and Reform Commissions (DRC) are responsible for coordinating all low-carbon development activities, the current institutional arrangement makes it hard for DRCs to be effective. To a large extent, local DRCs are more responsive to local governments’ needs and concerns–which often are driven by growth in GDP and regional development–than to the central government’s mandates. A substantial part of local DRCs’ budget comes from local governments, while the National DRC only provide a small portion of financial support.

In addition, there is a lack of cross-sector and inter-departmental cooperation both at the central and local levels. The current structure doesn’t provide a direct and official channel for cooperation. Fundamentally, energy efficiency is an endeavor that relates to all, requiring cooperation from many sectors and departments. An approach that addresses these many entities and an institutional structure that encourages such an approach are much-needed in China.

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