Guangzhou has something of a Chinese finger trap on its hands. Home to a large and swiftly expanding population, the megacity is intent on lowering already high – and rising – energy demands, while simultaneously maintaining its present rate of rapid economic and urban development.

As is the case in many Chinese cities, in Guangzhou urbanisation and economy are inextricably linked. The city’s increasing population facilitates greater productivity, driving economic growth and in turn supporting further mass migration.

Virgin Unite, sustainability, cities100, guangzhou

Virgin Unite, sustainability, cities100, guangzhou

Yet while the intertwined relationship may be mutually beneficial for both the population and economy, the symbiosis is as fragile as finest bone china. The resultant increases in demand for energy have caused widespread environmental issues in the city, with air and water pollution already both major concerns.

Ultimately, if the health of human inhabitants of Guangzhou comes under threat from toxic living conditions, the synergy between population and economic growth could actually cause the fall of the self-sustaining system it aims to support.

It’s a complex quandary, but one from which the Chinese city has been slowly extricating itself since the inception of an all-encompassing strategy launched in 2012. The pithily entitled Guangzhou Pilot Low Carbon City Implementation Plan incorporates a number of diverse tactics designed to curb energy demands in the city.

The multi-faceted plan includes proposals for tackling Guangzhou’s high carbon emissions, as well as those endorsing the growth of environmentally friendly culture.

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In accordance with the strategy, plans are afoot to eradicate outdated industrial capacity and equipment in Guangzhou; high-carbon projects are now limited; and stricter emissions standards have been introduced.

Meanwhile, energy efficient technologies, low carbon buildings and green industries are all being promoted. Examples of this include the strengthening of forest carbon sequestration with afforestation and the disposal of biomechanical waste through low-carbon means.

Additionally, the city is looking to get its public transport on the right track, with a new, rail-based transit infrastructure set to roll into town by 2020. The proposed system will link all current transport networks into one integrated structure, uniting airports, roads and metros. This enhanced configuration will help to cut vehicle emissions by reducing both traffic on the roads and the time residents spend commuting to and from work.

The impact of the project so far has been significant. Between the years of 2010 and 2014, CO2 emissions in the city were reduced by almost 40 million tons. Green industries, meanwhile, have grown rapidly. In 2014 alone, the sector shot up, accruing an added value of $4.3 billion over just 12 months. This represents an 11.1 per cent increase compared to 2013.

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Due to the projects initiated by the pilot plan, air quality in Guangzhou has also improved. The city met WHO air quality standards 85 per cent of days in 2015, an eight per cent increase compared to the previous year. This ongoing improvement could mean a reduction in related diseases in its human inhabitants, as well as reducing the strain on the natural environment.

To underline its commitment to the continuing project, Guangzhou announced in 2015 that the city would reach its carbon emissions peak by 2020. This proclamation could potentially put Guangzhou 10 years in advance of many other developing cities in China. Plenty of work yet remains to be done, but the signs are at least that Guangzhou’s escape is in its own hands.


Cities100 is a mission shared by Sustainia, C40 and Realdania to find the 100 leading city solutions to climate change. Read the publication here, and follow the conversation online using #Cities100

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