The Energy Foundation's Big Push to Make China's Cities Sustainable

China is the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, bringing a new coal-fired power plant online every eight to 10 days. Last November, it agreed to cap its carbon emissions by 2030 or earlier, setting a goal of deriving 20 percent of its energy from sustainable sources by that date. For China to reach its emission reduction goals, the task is daunting. By 2030, it has to add up to 1,000 gigawatts of emission-free power generating capacity, more than all the energy China currently generates by burning coal and the total electrical generating capacity reached by the U.S. from all sources in 2008.

That's a heavy lift. And you so you can understand how important it is to field lots of creative ideas for how China might lower its greenhouse gas emissions. Fortunately, a number of funders have been working in this area for some time now, as we've reported in the past, and no institution in this space is more important than the Energy Foundation

The foundation has long recognized that China is the 900-pound gorilla in an ever warming room. The intent of its China Sustainable Cities Program is to “reduce carbon emissions and air pollution in new and existing Chinese cities by promoting sustainable urbanization and transportation systems.” 

In case you don't know it, the Energy Foundation was launched in 1991. It describes itself as “pragmatic and nonpartisan, dedicated to finding practical solutions that work in the real world. Our primary role is as a grantmaker, supporting groups to build the new energy economy.”

In 1999, with the help of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Energy Foundation set up shop in China, in Beijing, with the goal of promoting energy efficiency and renewable energy. 

More than 350 million people are projected to resettle in China’s cities in the next 15 years, more people than currently live in the U.S. Planning reform is essential to cope with this influx, and for making sure that a surging new Chinese middle class isn't driving cars everywhere. We're all toast if Chinese cities develop like Los Angeles. The planet has a shot if they develop like New York. 

The Sustainable Cities Program is pursuing efforts in China to reform urban transportation systems with a combination of public transit feeding into pedestrian and bike paths. The program is rethinking urban design to encourage energy efficiency. Sustainable Cities is funding pilot projects as demonstrations that can be implemented by China’s provinces and by the national government. In recent years, too many of China’s cities have, in fact, adopted the urban development patterns of the post-war American West with sprawl linked by 10-lane expressways, a pattern with alarming implications as one looks ahead to a wealthier, more urbanized China. Sustainable Cities is making an effort to develop so called eco-cities that would have high-capacity infrastructure with green power generating capacity and compact mixed-use land development.

The multiple grants range from $50,000 to $275,000 and cover a broad spectrum of green approaches from training on sustainable development to studies on the viability of non-motorized transport. 

The foundation’s grants, it should be said, don't just relate to climate change. Air pollution in China is another huge and increasingly deadly threat that's being addressed. The Sustainable Cities Program is designed to have real impact today.

Related - A Great Wall of Funding? American Philanthropy and the Rise of China