Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city (SSTEC), China’s latest and largest eco-city project, saw its first residents earlier this year. The city is built on a blend of non-arable saline and alkaline land that was virtually uninhabitable five years ago. While this is an accomplishment in and of itself, SSTEC is trying to go even greener in terms of the energy efficiency of its buildings.

Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city in 2012 (Source:

SSTEC aims to offer green building certification based on more stringent standards than anywhere else in the country, including the national standards. It has already set up a Green Building Evaluation Committee (GBEC) to supervise building quality.

But in terms of energy efficiency, SSTEC’s GBEC still lacks the clearly defined requirements found in comprehensive international standards like the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. According to a World Bank report, the GBEC provides standards only for the building envelope and central heating, unlike LEED, which covers a broad range of energy systems including lighting, air conditioning, water heating, and appliances. While the ambition in this eco-city project is commendable, the oversights in SSTEC’s efficiency standards reflect a lack of comprehensiveness in green building standards across China, as the GBEC is already the country’s most advanced and comprehensive building standard.

In addition to Tianjin, three other municipalities (Beijing, Shanghai, and Chongqing) and China’s eastern coastal provinces will promote green building standards, according to the Twelfth Five-Year Plan for Green Buildings issued earlier this year. Starting in 2015, at least 50 percent of new real estate projects nationwide will need to comply with the new standards. The effects on energy savings may be questionable, however, given that the standards could be met too easily. For example, residential buildings will need to achieve only two of the six requirements under the “Energy Saving and Utilization” criteria to get one star, the lowest green building certification.

Targeting Large Public Buildings

Unlike residential buildings, large public buildings with more than 20,000 square meters of gross floor area are required to meet the green building standards starting in early 2014, regardless of when they were built. Just meeting the criteria for green building certification does not necessarily mean that the buildings will reduce energy consumption, however. Poor management and unrestricted energy demand have an impact on the efficiency of a building and can keep its energy consumption high.

According to a study by the China Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, China’s large-scale public buildings account for less than 4 percent of the national urban building area, but accounted for more than 20 percent of the total national building energy consumption in 2004.

To reduce the energy consumption of large public buildings, the government established an innovative energy conservation scrutiny system in 2007 that includes energy consumption statistics, an inspection process, energy audits, and a certification system. The effectiveness of the system is questionable, however, as there are no reports on whether the Eleventh Five-Year Plan (which ended in 2010) actually reached its goal of decreasing the energy consumption of large public buildings by 20 percent.

Climate Effects on Heating

The energy consumption of buildings is heavily influenced by climatic conditions, with heating being the single largest source of building energy use in cold regions. About 550 million people (42 percent of China’s total population) live in China’s cold and severe-cold zones, occupying 43 percent of the national urban residential and commercial building stock.

Energy consumption for heating in those areas accounts for 45 percent of the total energy consumption of buildings in urban areas. Due to poor thermal insulation and low heating system efficiency, the energy used for heating in these areas is 2–4 times greater than in similar climates in Northern Europe. One of the targets of the Twelfth Five-Year Plan is to upgrade heat-metering and energy efficiency for more than 400 million square meters of existing residential buildings in northern regions by 2015. By the end of 2012, 220 million square meters had been upgraded, achieving an average energy savings equivalent to saving 2.2 million tons of coal in each heating season.

In order to promote building energy efficiency and green building construction, the central government provides economic incentives to local governments, residents, and real estate developers. For example, the central government gave 5.3 billion Yuan (US $860 million) in 2012 to local governments to fund the upgrade of heat-metering and energy efficiency of existing residential buildings in northern heating areas.

The indoor temperature of these upgraded buildings increased by 3 to 6 degrees Celsius. For individuals, the government plans to provide subsidies to residents who purchase properties with green building certifications, offering 45 Yuan (US $7.30) and 80 Yuan (US $13) per square meter for two- and three-star green buildings, respectively. Given that the average housing price in China’s largest cities reached 10,098 Yuan (US $1,638) per square meter in April 2013, however, the subsidy is likely too small to motivate people to buy green building properties.

Emissions Trading to Promote Efficiency

China’s pilot carbon emissions trading programs, which aim to be fully functional by the end of 2013, might force large commercial buildings to improve their energy efficiency. The effectiveness of such pilot programs depends on the total quota set on the building sector. At the initial stage, it is believed that the quota will be allocated for free to enterprises to maintain growth of the nation’s economy, which is heavily boosted by the real estate sector.

The good news is that 15 hotels, 15 shopping malls, and nine large commercial buildings have been selected as carbon emission trading pilot enterprises in Shanghai, accounting for 20 percent of the total enterprises included in the city-level trading plan. Enrolling these large, energy-intensive buildings in the emissions trading pilot will target some of the more culpable buildings for energy efficiency improvements. If the pilot programs are a success, large buildings such as these shopping malls will likely be targeted in a national emissions trading scheme.

Although the Chinese government saved the equivalent of 65 million tons of coal by the end of 2012 by introducing mandatory building energy efficiency codes, there is still a long way to go to improve the energy efficiency of China’s buildings. As noted in a previous blog post, the Chinese government needs in particular to address the effectiveness and efficiency of the policy implementation process associated with green buildings and eco-city development.

Lihuan Zhou is an intern with the China program at Worldwatch Institute. 

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12th Five-Year Plan, China, emissions trading, energy efficiency, energy policy, Green Buildings, greenhouse gas emissions, LEED