In China, where fully half the world’s new buildings are erected each year, the reason the government is interested in squeezing energy demand is simple. It’s not just altruism or global ecological goodwill. As China continues to urbanize at a breakneck pace, moving a projected 350 million people from rural areas into cities over the next 20 years and erecting the floor-space equivalent of two New York Cities every year, its energy demand is rising worryingly quickly — up 12 percent from just last year. Feeding that demand is not easy, and many cities in China continue to experience rolling brownouts (the situation was exacerbated during this summer’s drought, when diminished river flows shrunk the available energy from hydropower).
Beijing knows there’s no silver bullet. That’s why it’s investing heavily in both dirty coal and clean energy and, increasingly, in energy efficiency. The operation of buildings in China — which includes heating, air-conditioning, and electricity — accounts for 25 to 27 percent of the country’s annual energy consumption, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, which maintains an office in Beijing. China’s own Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (MOHURD) projects that energy use associated with buildings will rise 70 percent by 2020, unless greener building practices become the norm. That’s why Beijing’s most recent five-year plan takes a page from Jimmy Carter’s enthusiasm for low thermostat levels and his infamous “put on a sweater!” campaign (heck, no one has to worry about winning re-election here).
More specifically, China’s five-year plan shows a special interest in the concept of building energy use and “green buildings,” a notion born in America during the 1970s oil embargo. On June 15, MOHURD’s director of building energy-efficiency, Hao Bin, announced that Beijing is finalizing a national energy-labeling system for new building construction. As he told conference attendees at the Global Green Building Conference in Shanghai, the government is also evaluating plans to subsidize certain kinds of energy-efficient building materials. Already it’s funding a number of research and demonstration projects.