The Great Green Leap Forward: Energy-Hungry China and India Leapfrog to the Front of the Global Green Building Movement

The glossy promotional brochure for DSK Vishwa, a new 6,000-unit housing development on the gentle hills surrounding the hub city of Pune, contained an appeal not typically pitched to the aspiring middle-class Indian: a “rain water harvesting channel.” India’s exploding housing sector in high-tech centers like Pune and Bangalore is finally seeing “green” development to satisfy the demands of more sophisticated and environmentally-conscious consumers—and improve the bottom line for developers.

Indian cities are crowded and infrastructure-challenged.

“It’s a dynamic process,” says Sanjay Deshpande, joint managing director for DS Kulkarni, the project’s developer and one of the largest homebuilders in India. “In the first phase we led by example, offering green features not normally found in these residential projects, but already in phase two clients have caught on and are demanding even greener buildings.”

The green building movement has reached the developing world not a moment too soon for the booming, energy-hungry economies of China and India. With China’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) still surging at nine percent, and India’s nipping at its heels with projected GDP growth of more than eight percent this year, the “Asia Century” is dawning fast. Rapid economic growth rates have also meant that two Asian giants are taking a larger bite out of global energy supplies. China’s demand for oil has doubled since 2000, accounting for 40 percent of the total increase in global demand. India’s energy demand has been increasing by 30 percent annually.

With high oil prices and low domestic supplies, both countries will have to rely on their abundant—and abundantly dirty—coal reserves to meet future demand. China already has the dubious distinction of being number two, after the U.S., in climate-changing carbon emissions, and India is fourth. And that is at comparatively low rates of per-capita consumption by what are still largely rural societies. Once the majority of Indians and Chinese move off the land and start consuming at rates approaching even those of their frugal neighbors in Japan, they will require a full planet Earth to meet their needs alone.

Alternatives to a “Toxic Model of Development”

Due to the harsh deprivations imposed by rural life, the average Indian uses just four percent of energy consumed by the typical American. But that’s changing as people flood into cities, pushing urbanization rates in both India and China to over 50 percent within the next generation.

Sunita Narain, a leading voice in India’s growing environmental movement, writes in the forward to WorldWatch Institute’s 2006 State of the World Report, “The Western model of growth India and China wish most feverishly to emulate is intrinsically toxic. It uses huge resources and it generates enormous waste.” The only alternative, according to Narain, is for the developing world to “reinvent the development trajectory.”

Dr. R.K. Pachauri, the current chair of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, commented in a recent op-ed that with India’s oil consumption expected to double by 2030, “the Indian economy and the expectations of the public are now at a crucial stage which requires some major departures from past practices.”

Political leaders in India have made a major commitment to increase the share of renewable energy by five times to a quarter of the country’s total power needs. China, meanwhile, has adopted a far-sighted new energy law that will direct large investments into developing renewable energy sources.

Both countries are already leaders in the development of wind and solar power and the production of biogas. China uses solar hot water heaters to meet 10 percent of its total residential hot water demand, which represents a full 75 percent of world capacity. India has pioneered biogas production and rural solar electrification and is looking to the promise of bio-deisel to reduce its dependency on imported petroleum.

While quite a bit of attention has been focused on the two countries” advances in renewable generation and transportation, such as Delhi’s impressive, if belated, switch to buses and taxis that run on compressed national gas (CNG), a less-noticed shift is also taking place in how the two nations create new buildings and communities. Given that buildings typically account for up to 40 percent of total energy consumption, India and China’s great leap to the head of the growing green building movement will have profound implications for the global geo-politics of energy.

It Takes a City: China’s Second Green Revolution

China is beginning to explore green building.

Unlike the United States, which until Bush’s famous “addicted to oil” statement in this year’s State of the Union address, seemed bent on drilling and bombing its way out of the energy crisis, the world’s second- and fifth-biggest oil addicts are looking to kick the habit through aggressive alternative energy sourcing and strict conservation. It won’t be easy, especially against the backdrop of unprecedented rates of urbanization in both countries. Almost two thirds of Indians and Chinese live in rural areas where per capita energy consumption is still very low. But China already has 45 cities with more than a million people. By 2025, India is projected to have more than 70 cities over one million strong and may well surpass China to be the most populous nation in the world by mid-century.

China is hoping to address this demographic revolution through a massive project of centrally planned urbanization. During the Cultural Revolution, millions of people were forced to abandon the cities for the countryside. Forty years later, China plans to reverse the flow by urbanizing some 400 million people by 2030. This time, they are taking the cities to the people and making them green along the way.

Officials from the China-U.S. Center for Sustainable Development have recruited the visionary American architect and green guru, William McDonough to help them create six model cities. In the model city of Huangbaiyu, McDonough takes his design cues from the local landscape by constructing low, earth-bermed buildings with roof gardens and streets oriented at a 15-degree angle to break up chilly winter winds and circulate urban air. Every building will be mixed use and each will be oriented to capture the maximum amount of solar energy.

More than creating yet another “prototype,” McDonough and his Chinese colleagues are thinking big. “We’re not talking about dinky solar collectors on roofs,” says McDonough, but “square miles of marginal land covered with them. This could drop the cost of solar energy on an order of magnitude. And for every job making solar panels, there are four jobs putting them in place and maintaining them.”

By seeking greener models of development at the scale of entire cities, McDonough and others argue that China could eventually revolutionize way the rest of the world lives. Already green urbanism is moving into boardrooms at the highest levels of government and industry. Last summer the Chinese Premier and Mayor of Shanghai unveiled plans for the world’s first fully sustainable “eco-city” in Dongtan, strategically located at the mouth of the Yangtze River next to Shanghai. The first phase of the massive project

will be completed in time for the 2010 Expo in Shanghai. By then, the city plans to showcase innovative urban water harvesting and purification systems, community waste recycling, waste-based biogas facilities and co-generation power plants. When completed in 2040, the city will be three-quarters of the size of Manhattan and almost entirely self-sufficient in energy, water and food.

In the coming Asian century, how China decides to feed and clothe its people and build its cities will have a profound impact on rest of the world. “It is no gimmick,” says Peter Head, a director for the global engineering firm Arup that has been hired to build Dongtan and several other eco-cities in China, “It is being led at the highest levels of the Chinese government. They are very committed to developing a new paradigm of economic development.” Whether this new paradigm shift will be enough to restore the planet’s ecological balance, however, will depend a lot on the course taken by the other wakening giant in Asia.

Who’s in the LEED? U.S. takes Gold, India takes Platinum

Standing in the hazy shadow of the Taj Mahal on the banks of the fetid Yamuna River, Bill Clinton challenged India during his visit in 2000 to become a global leader in environmental development. He pledged millions of dollars of U.S. aid to help India usher in a greener future.

Just four years and $20 million later, India surpassed Clinton’s challenge by completing the first platinum rated LEED building outside the U.S., and only the third of its kind in the world. The CII-Sohrabji Godrej Green Business Centre in Hyderabad, a 2000-square-meter complex, is a hybrid mix of high-tech features like photovoltaic panels and daylight sensors and traditional Indian methods of climate control like wind towers.The upstart Indian Green Building Council, launched in 1997 and housed at the GBC, is already creating waves in the global green building movement. India’s second platinum rated LEED project, the ITC building 20 miles south of New Delhi, was completed last year, and at least 10 more LEED-registered building are in planning or development. Meanwhile, the Indian chapter of the Green Building Council plans to launch LEED-India later this year.

India’s nascent green building movement has been driven largely by high-profile commercial projects undertaken by brand-conscious Indian multinationals. IT, business processing and manufacturing companies that are thriving in the new Indian economy are deeply influenced by U.S. business culture. But the Indian student is beginning to outgrow its American teacher and exercise leadership on a global stage. At the Green Business Centre’s dedication in July 2004, its chairman, industrialist Jamshyd Godrej, stated the GBC would emerge as a model for the entire Indian industry. Godrej said, “Our vision is to not just to put up this demonstration building but also be the world leaders.”

But the real challenge for India is whether it can lead its own society out of the 19th century. In most of India’s fast-growing cities, some of which have doubled their population in the last 25 years, inadequate municipal infrastructure and services are at the breaking point. Devastating monsoon floods last summer left Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai under water for days, causing hundreds of deaths and millions of dollars in damage. During the rest of the year, all three cities suffer from shortages of water and electricity.

“A dozen or so model green buildings in India have won well-deserved international accolades but they don’t get at the real issue,” argues Tanmay Tathagat, a senior energy analyst with the International Institute for Energy Conservation (IIEC) in New Delhi. “You have to address not just the hardware of cities, but also their enabling or disabling software—that is, the rules and regulations that make green building scalable and sustainable.”

The IIEC, with funding from USAID and various state and local agencies, is implementing the first integrated green housing project in India that aims to reboot the urban software in the City of Pune. The so-called Eco-Housing Mainstreaming Project uses the critical concept of mainstreaming to focus on integrating and standardizing the process by which building development occurs, not just on its end product. Key players in the city’s red-hot real estate market were invited to participate in reshaping the city’s residential building code to make it more eco-friendly and user-friendly.

Seeing the Forest for the Tree-huggers: The Challenge of Democratic Green Development

Exit the well-tended grounds and imposing gates of DS Kulkarni’s massive Vishwa development, and the noisy, chaotic spectacle of urban India unfolds. It’s also, not coincidently, where the Pune City limits end. Most of the large private developments springing up around Pune are being built on former agricultural land in the unincorporated villages beyond the reach of municipal regulation. Over the last few years, civic and environmental activists in Pune have united behind a campaign to “Save hills, Save Pune,” which resulted last year in the passage of a visionary “Green Development Plan” to limit construction and promote bio-diversity parks on the environmentally sensitive hills surrounding the city. Meanwhile, just over the crest of the protected hills, the relentless demand for cheap land is pushing development farther away from the city and straining an already overstretched urban infrastructure.

India’s largest metropolis, Mumbai (formally Bombay), has recently proposed a set of green building guidelines for all new residential construction based on Pune’s Eco-housing initiative. If adopted, it will be the first mandatory certification program in India. Ever since the devastating floods in Mumbai in July 2005, citizen groups have demanded swift action from municipal authorities to upgrade the city’s choked water and sewer systems and channel development away from sensitive flood zones. The new Eco-housing guidelines were in part a response to the environmental vulnerability of the Mumbai’s eight million poor, many of whom are crowded into flotsam shantytowns lining the rivers and drainage canals.

A 2003 McKinsey report on the future of Mumbai, commissioned by prominent business leaders, was typically exultant about the role of the private sector in remaking India’s aging financial capital into a world class city. The report generated a raft of criticism from urban planners and environmentalists responding to the assessment of Mumbai’s potential as the “next Shanghai.” The critics say that Shanghai, with its ardent embrace of capitalism, has become an urban dystopia of vertical concrete slums and endless tangles of asphalt.

But China’s spectacular economic growth over the last 10 years has only been possible with the strong, guiding hand (and sometimes the fist) of the communist state. From 1990 to 2000, the Chinese government invested an estimated $100 billion in the infrastructure of its cities. Progressives in India, on the other hand, will argue endlessly on moral high ground of the state’s responsibility to ensure economic and environmental justice while ceding the real ground to feckless private developers.

In a democracy, people can shape the development process and whom it serves. Any definition of “green” development must take into consideration not just outcomes in terms of water conserved

and kilowatts saved, but also in terms of how much democratic participation is involved. Can we truly call “green” in any meaningful political sense China’s plan to forcibly move a third of its population from farms to flats in a single generation, no matter how healthy and efficient their new homes? Such a frighteningly bold leap into modernity would simply be unthinkable in democratic India where people have a voice and a vote. But the challenge for India, and many countries committed to truly a green building movement, is can they take an equally bold intellectual leap toward a democratic development that’s good for the planet and the people that live on it.