CONSTRUCT TO DESTRUCT IN CHINA

By Mohan Khidia MURP ’16

While at CDIPD (Chengdu Institute of Planning and Urban Design), my summer internship office, the experts were discussing about increasing the commercial FAR (Floor Area Ratio) of Chengdu’s CBD (Central Business District), the Chinese government rejected 17 construction projects of worth $17.6 billion. The rejection was said to protect the depleting environment. It is an obvious fact that China’s impressive growth has been orchestrated without any view of environmental regulation. Chinese cities are experiencing intense air pollution in recent years. Hundreds of thousands premature deaths, linked to polluted environment, has become a major source of discomfort for Chinese government. In addition, the rapid economic growth has also resulted in a massive amount of construction activity accompanied with a large amount of construction and demolition waste (C&D) over the last 30 years. In the recent years China has literally become the “biggest construction site” in the world and also the “biggest dump yard of construction waste.” The majority of this waste is left unprocessed causing serious damage to the environment. The increasing level of pollution might be a great news for face masks and air purifiers’ manufacturers, whose sales surged to an unprecedented level, whereas the Chinese government is facing the dilemma of maintaining economic growth while protecting the environmental quality.

In 2013, Greenpeace produced a ranking of 74 Chinese cities by levels of PM2.5 air pollution – PM2.5 is particulate matter of diameter less than 2.5 micrometers (μ m) (EPA, 2009). Almost all the Chinese cities have average annual PM2.5 concentrations surpassing the national standards (35 micrograms per cubic). Many cities have air pollution levels almost twice the national standard, particularly in the central and western provinces. By any measure – WHO’s recommended 10 micrograms per cubic meter, U.S Environmental Protection Agency’s standard of 12, or even the national standard of 35 – Chinese cities are excessively polluted. The easily visible sign of high pollution is the hazy weather, and low sunshine days in eastern and southwestern cities in China, including Chengdu. In the last few years, the stubborn winter haze has created dissent among government, citizens, domestic and international media. The government admits that emissions are difficult to control as it requires major transformation in energy consumption. In 2012, under the “12th Five-Year-Plan,” for the first time the Chinese government established national standards for air pollution levels. However, there are several difficulties that need to be addressed in implementing the regulations: limited authorities of the local environmental protection bureau, inconsistent and unreliable data, and short history of PM2.5 monitoring. Furthermore, various studies indicate that construction dust is a major source of PM2.5 in Chinese cities, the steady increase in construction waste could be attributed to the uncontrollable growth of the real estate industry.

In recent years, China is experiencing enormous growth in building construction, at the rate of 2 billion square meters of floor space annually. The construction industry has a huge contribution to the national economy with the annual investment of 2,300 billion Yuan, more than 20% of national GDP. While there are no precise statistics, a building’s lifespan in China is approximately 30 years, compared to 75 years in United States and even higher number in Europe. According to Beijing Municipal Research Institute of Environmental Protection estimates, dust produced by a construction site is around 0.26 kg per sq. meter every month. Dust accounts for approximately 10 percent of PM 2.5 (fine particle) pollution in Chengdu, the largest economy in Western China, and approximately 14 percent in Beijing, the national capital. In 2013, the National Development and Reform Commission report revealed that the country produces 1 billion tons constructions waste annually, out of which 26% is from building process, 74% from demolition. Where Japan recycles almost 95% of construction waste, in the case of China the figure is reversed, only 5% is reused. The recycling market values only the metals like steel and copper, whereas large amounts of concrete are dumped into landfills, because there is not enough profit in recycling concrete. Most construction waste is carried to C&D (construction and demolition) landfills, located mainly in suburbs or countryside, without any processing or treatment. Piles of construction waste in many suburbs have become a common site for locals. Most of the construction and demolition waste is dumped illegally. Treatment of waste costs about 3 yuan per kg, and is generally avoided. Obviously, the current market is a major obstacle for C&D waste management in China. Resultantly, the large quantity of construction and demolition waste has placed great pressure on the limited landfill space and environmental protection.

Currently, over one third of the municipal waste is comprised of construction waste. The increasing quantity of the waste disposal sites is posing serious threat to the environment as well as to human health. In areas where dump is piled, soil and groundwater get contaminated. Preliminary research indicates that 10 tons of waste/600 square meter land drops the nutrient capacity of the soil by 10%. A 2013 study by China’s Ministry of Land and Resources highlights that almost 60% of groundwater in the monitored sites (spread across China) is unfit for drinking. As rural urbanization continues, the production of construction waste, and the air and water pollution associated with it is sure to increase. Therefore, there is an urgent need for new strategies to not only reduce the amount of waste, but also controlling the hazardous impacts of the waste. During my stay in China, I observed that the growing middle classes have been gaining a voice over the issues, but it is very difficult to mobilize the appeal under the communist authorities. Rejecting construction projects is a blunt short-term solution, the government needs to look at long-term growth drivers. Now the biggest question is: In the battle against pollution, what is an ideal way to counter the destruction caused by construction, particularly in a country that heavily relies on manufacturing, construction, and infrastructure development?

Image Source: baltimoresun.com

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