China and Urbanisation

Since its rapid industrialisation and urbanisation, China has been the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases and is frequently criticised by the international community for their relentless pursuit of economic growth in spite of its consequences for the climate. Statistics from the World Resources Institute show that in 2011, China’s greenhouse gas emissions far exceeded even its nearest rival, the US. Chinese officials have always argued that developing economies such as China cannot afford to reduce their emissions at the expense of economic growth, and accused the West for attempting to hamper China’s economic rise.

Source: World Resources Institute

However, in recent times, this position might be taking a 180-degree-turn. Climate Central, an research organisation on climate change, has reported that China is quickly becoming the global leader in climate change reform. China’s Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin, speaking at the COP 22 in Marrakech, has also recently called for the US to commit to the Paris climate change agreement. There has also been a recent shift in the way Beijing talks about its highly congested and polluted urban centres.

Dennis Normille, in an article on China’s cities in Science, describes Liuyun Xiaoqu, a neighbourhood that has brought back walkways as an alternative to cars. China’s urban population, according to Normille, has doubled between 1978 and 2010, with effects such as traffic congestion, air pollution, and deteriorating public health. However, the country is recognising that the ill-effects of urbanisation due to the pursuit of economic growth, and neighbourhoods such as Liuyun Xiaoqu represent a step toward sustainable, smart cities. As promising as it sounds, this ideal is not without problems. Normille describes that many have called for these gated communities to be opened, drawing backlash from residents about security; others have noted the difficulties for bicycle-sharing plans as people have become accustomed to the comfort that cars provide. Many of China’s ‘eco-cities’ have also failed to attract residents despite lower cost of living and other benefits, and many of these projects have been forced to be abandoned midway.

This process of rapid urbanisation, and therefore urbanisation’s impact on the environment, is expected to echo throughout the globe. By 2050, 66% of the world’s population is forecasted to live in urban centres, which is 12 percentage points above levels in 2014. With an increasing urban population, Ramaswami et al. put forth 8 principles for the creation of liveable and smart cities, among which is the need to recognise different strategies for the efficient use of resources in different city types. They cite the efficiency of different strategies for cooling in the United States and the EU as opposed to China. Therefore, there seems to be a need to understand these urban centres and applying solutions instead of attempting to implement a blanket solution for all cities. This, of course, requires a significantly greater amount of time and problem-solving effort.

Economic opportunity has been described as the key cause of urbanisation, and cities can be expected to continue growing. The challenge is then to create liveable, smart, and thriving cities that recognise the importance of ecology and the environment.



  • Grullon, G. (2016). Rise of the City. Science, 352(6822), 906-907.
  • Ramaswami, A., Russell, A. G., Culligan, P. J., Sharma, K. R., Kumar, E. (2016). Meta-principles for developing smart, sustainable, and healthy cities. Science, 352(6822), 940-943.
  • Normille, D. (2016). China Rethinks Cities. Science, 352(6288), 196-198.

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