June 23, 2008

Self-Sufficient Eco-City Set For Completion By 2050

Developers in Shanghai hope to create the world's first carbon-neutral city, even as recent estimates put China at the top of the list as the world's larges emitter of carbon dioxide.

The Dongtan project is moving slowly, and has been hampered by rising doubts over whether it will be a model for China's rapid urbanization, or just a posh community for wealthy commuters eager to flee the smog and traffic of Shanghai.

"'Zero-emission' city is pure commercial hype," said Dai Xingyi, a professor at the department of environmental science and engineering at Shanghai's Fudan University.

"You can't expect some technology to both offer you a luxurious and comfortable life, and save energy at the same time. That's just a dream," he said.

The city sits near the eastern tip of Chongming, the world's largest alluvial island in the mouth of the Yangtze River. Developers hope the community will become home for up to 400,000 people across 30 square kilometers "“ about half the size of Manhattan.

"The idea is that China is moving from an industrial age to an ecological age," said Roger Wood, an associate director of Arup, a consulting firm headquartered in London that was selected to design the Dongtan project.

Currently, the city has ten wind turbines along the boundary, which will run on energy from sources including wind, solar power and biogas from municipal waste.

However, skeptics say that the community would come at a costly price since generating electricity from wind is estimated to be at least twice as expensive as using coal. Electricity from solar power could be ten times as expensive.

"True 'zero-emissions' comes with a big price tag. I doubt anyone would be willing to pay for it," said Fudan University's Dai.

In fact, Arup has declined to disclose the cost of the eco-city project, but state-owned Shanghai Industrial Investment Corporation (SIIC), said the construction costs could be at least 30 or 40 percent more than for a typical property development of the same size.

But Wood said those costs would be worth it in the long run, when the city became self-sufficient.

Environmental friendliness must be practical, he said, not just an image to splash over a "business-as-usual" development.

"We don't want 'green-wash'. It's got to be real."

The project's supporters applaud it for combining existing energy-saving technologies.

"Dongtan is exploring a new way of urbanization," said Zheng Shiling, a professor at the architecture department of Tongji University in Shanghai. "It would not be realistic if we continued to build cities the way we've been doing."

The city is expected to house about 400,000 residents by the time it is completed in 2050.

However, although Arup envisions farmers and fishermen living outside the city, providing fresh produce and seafood to city dwellers, at the fisherman's wharf nearby, locals were not impressed by the project.

"We won't move into that city, because we are not educated and we would be useless," said 45-year-old Pan Meiqin, who runs a small grocery store with her husband.

Right now, it takes at least 40 minutes by ferry to reach Chongmine from the outskirts of Shanghai. A tunnel and bridge, scheduled for completion in 2009, will make trips to the island faster and more reliable.

Improved access could make Dongtan the new home of wealthy commuters, some experts said.

"It will therefore be characterized by high levels of personal consumption and large per capita eco-footprints," said William Rees, a professor at the University of British Columbia.

While debate rages over the environmental value of the project, some experts see such eco-cities as the future of urban development.

"Accepting that urbanization in the developing world is inevitable, it is probably better to build nominal eco-cities than standard low-efficiency buildings and urban infrastructure," said Rees.


Image Caption: Chongming Island. Courtesy Wikipedia


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