Forget how much coal it burns. Forget its double-digit economic growth. Forget subsidised prices and the fact that a new car hits China's roads every six seconds. The biggest obstacle in China's path to curbing its wasteful energy ways may be the roofs over its citizens' heads.
BEIJING -- Forget how much coal it burns. Forget its double-digit economic growth. Forget subsidised prices and the fact that a new car hits China's roads every six seconds.
The biggest obstacle in China's path to curbing its wasteful energy ways may be the roofs over its citizens' heads.
Facing the biggest mass urbanisation in human history, China must slow the pace of new building and persuade its increasingly well-off urbanites to live in smaller houses if policymakers hope to meet efficiency targets, analysts say.
With around 400 million people expected to flock to its cities over the next two decades, a third more than the entire population of the United States, that's no easy task.
"We can't support this kind of expansion because we don't have enough resources," said Jiang Yi, Vice Dean of the School of Architecture at prestigious Tsinghua University, referring to the increasingly large buildings going up as urban areas expand at a rate of nearly 2 billion square metres a year.
Efficiency is a top priority at this week's annual meeting of China's parliament, with Beijing chasing an ambitious goal of cutting the amount of fuel used to generate each dollar of national income by 20 percent by the end of this decade.
The number-two energy consumer's heavy industry and growing car fleet have shouldered most of the blame for the worsening pollution and increased reliance on imported oil, but analysts are now pointing to the construction and housing sector as well.
Around half the world's new buildings go up in China each year, and the construction and use of the country's houses, offices and malls accounts for around 40 percent of its energy use, said sustainable engineering expert Robert Watson.
"The increase in living space and electronic consumer goods is the biggest single contributor to growth in China's energy use," Watson, Chairman and Chief Scientist at consultancy American Sinotech, told Reuters.
"When you compare auto use to what it used to be, it is huge, but when you compare it to building, it's nothing," he said.
Construction and building materials suck up 16-18 percent of China's energy, while direct electricity use in homes and offices for everything from lights and cooling to elevators accounts for another quarter, Watson added.
To prevent a demand spike, the Construction Ministry has said new buildings should become 50 percent more efficient in the five years to 2010, and substandard projects will lose their permits.
China will also invest 1.5 trillion yuan ($194 billion) in renovations by 2020, and Watson estimates the market for efficient buildings and upgrades will be worth over $55 billion within five years alone.
But even if efficiency levels rise, growing affluence may still strain power supplies, as average living space climbs from around 30 square metres (323 sq ft) per person common across Asian cities such as Tokyo and Hong Kong towards 45 sq m seen in Europe.
Not only does that drive up the cost of heating and cooling the space, it requires more and more energy to produce the concrete and steel needed to build the structures.
"There are two separate problems -- we need to control the total scale of the construction industry and we must reduce energy consumption," Jiang told Reuters.
Slowing down the pace of construction would also help meet a government goal of cooling the country's economy, he added, and tie in with efforts to prevent investment from overheating amid worries about a possible real-estate bubble.
Premier Wen Jiabao on Monday told parliament, which holds sessions in a Soviet-era monolith itself scheduled for a green upgrade, that China would "resolutely control" the amount of land used for construction, singling out private houses for criticism.
But with the re-zoning of rural land for construction one of the easiest ways for local governments to make extra cash, Beijing may face an uphill struggle.
At least increasing numbers of the buildings springing up around the Chinese capital do boast green credentials, but not all projects can back up their claims.
And cheap, state-set power prices combined with a relatively low level of home ownership and a lot of speculation, mean even genuinely "green" developments are rarely driven by the economic motives needed to generate a real shift in China's habits.
Instead of saving money on utility bills, they are designed to sell luxury apartments in a crowded market.
"It is limited to more high-profile developments at the moment, clients are concerned about the environment and some kind of green label helps on the sales market," said Frederick Wong, sustainable buildings consultant at global design firm Arup.