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China could reap $8 trillion in returns, create 15 million new jobs, reduce emissions through low-carbon investments in cities

New research demonstrates how China’s cities can be engines of COVID-19 recovery, accelerated high-quality growth and carbon neutrality. Recommends putting cities at the heart of implementation of the Five-Year Plan, adopting national vision for net-zero emissions.

BEIJING (March 31, 2021)—Two newly released reports find that in order to accelerate COVID-19 recovery, achieve shared prosperity, and drive climate action, national governments—including China’s central government—must invest in cities to significantly accelerate decarbonisation and enhance resilience. They will be launched on 31st March at 3pm CST at an event co-hosted by the Coalition for Urban Transitions, the World Resources Institute (USA) Beijing Representative Office, the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, London School of Economics and Political Science, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Tsinghua University.

The Seizing the Urban Opportunity report finds that successful implementation of its solutions could result in an 89% reduction of GHG emissions from China’s cities by 2050, economic returns of $7.7 trillion by 2050, and 15.2 million new jobs in 2030. The Accelerating China’s Urban Transition report delves deeper into how cities can support the country to accelerate towards high-quality growth and carbon neutrality by providing specific recommendations for economic, financial and policy levers.

These reports highlight the vital role of cities as engines of national economies and livelihoods. Yet they also make it clear that cities cannot do this on their own—national governments hold the key to urban transformation, given their scale, access to resources, and control over many policy realms. According to past research from the Coalition, local governments have primary responsibility for less than one-third of urban emissions reduction potential and national or other higher-tier governments have primary authority over the measures required to achieve two-thirds of the global urban emissions reduction potential. In China, the national government share is about 80%.

“China’s economic success story is built on cities, which are home to three-fifths of the population and 90% of GDP,” said Dr Li Fang, Chief Representative of World Resources Institute Beijing Representative Office. “That’s why this is such a pivotal moment. By taking the right steps today and building on positive developments it has made with cities already, the central government can both accelerate the shift to net-zero emissions and drive shared prosperity. Moreover, the central government can set up incentive mechanism to encourage qualified cities to peak emissions within the 14th Five-Year Plan period.”

“This report ‘Seizing the Urban Opportunity’ shows how national governments can work with urban leaders to unlock the enormous potential in cities and in the urbanisation process. Greater national support for urban action is essential to cut carbon pollution in key sectors including energy, transport, construction and land use,” said Amina Mohammed, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations and Chair of the U.N. Sustainable Development Group.

The report comes at a time when COVID-19 has changed the way people live in cities, and it thus underlines that this is the time to rethink cities’ roles and invest in their recovery. The pandemic exposed economies and communities around the world to a wide range of challenges, with cities and the urban poor particularly hard-hit. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, China’s cities faced major challenges including congestion, pollution, and sprawl. Climate change continues to pose growing threats as well, including severe floods, water scarcity, sea-level rise, and extreme heat. This is thus a pivotal time for national governments, especially with COP26 in Glasgow coming up later this year, as the choices they make will either put their countries on track for a more prosperous and resilient future or accelerate the climate emergency.

“China has taken major steps already to build low-carbon, resilient and compact cities, and reduce water, land, and air pollution. We have embraced nature-based solutions to build resilience, from the pioneering Sponge City Programme to reforestation, and we’ve pledged to reach carbon neutrality by 2060,” said Dr. Baoxing Qiu, Counsellor of the State Council and former vice minister of Housing and Urban-Rural Development. “We also recognise that there is further to go, just as we recognise the importance of this moment—and of this research. We will be looking closely at these findings.”

The reports highlight numerous opportunities for action for China, which include:

  • Putting sustainable cities at the heart of implementation of its investment plans, Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), and recently unveiled Five-Year Plan (FYP), and with the aim of peaking emissions in most urban areas by 2025. The FYP’s massive investments alone will shape China’s trajectory for years to come. This is a chance to transform cities to lead the way to a carbon-neutral future.
  • Embedding the 14th FYP’s human-centric ‘new urbanisation strategy’ at the centre of forthcoming sectoral and municipal implementation plans.
  • Enhancing energy efficiency in the buildings sector through enforcing green building standards and supporting deep building retrofits. This is a prime opportunity to support the creation of large numbers of jobs in cities and slow the rise in electricity demand.
  • Supporting small and mid-sized cities. This is a chance to foster sustainable development, transform mobility and accessibility, and improve inter-regional equity.
  • Developing stable own-source revenue streams at the municipal level.
  • Incorporating decarbonisation and resilience objectives, including nature-based solutions, in national urban design and regeneration strategies. China aims to have 80% of urban built-up areas meet Sponge City standards by 2030, thus it is crucial to keep scaling up those efforts and incorporate equally ambitious measures in urban renewal projects.

“This report is as critical as it is timely. By 2030 nearly a billion people will be added to the global urban population—and trillions of dollars will be invested in urban infrastructure—in the decade where global CO2 emissions must be reduced by around half for the target of holding temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C,” said Professor Lord Nicholas Stern, Chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics. “Focusing on compact, connected, and clean cities—where it is easier to move, breathe and work productively and greenhouse gas emissions can be far lower than in existing urban structures—will be at the heart of achieving climate ambitions and finding a new path to strong, sustainable, resilient, and inclusive growth.”

Read the Seizing the Urban Opportunity report here.

Read the Accelerating China’s Urban Transition report here.

Seizing the Urban Opportunity was launched to support the COP26 UK Presidency in building momentum for enhanced climate ambition by national governments and other actors ahead of COP26 in Glasgow. Through insights from six emerging economies—China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa—it provides a call to action to tackle the triple challenges of COVID-19 recovery, economic development, and climate action by transforming cities. The report is a collaborative effort, created in consultation with experts and policymakers in the six focus countries, with additional input from more than 36 organisations across five continents. The report is funded by the UK government, The Resilience Shift, the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy and the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation.

Accelerating China’s Urban Transition complements Seizing the Urban Opportunity by delving deeper into how cities can support the country to accelerate towards high-quality growth and carbon neutrality. It provides a detailed exploration of the economic case for transforming China’s urban development model, outlines key priorities to be taken in specific sectors and sets out strategies for financing this transformation. The report is led by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, the World Resources Institute Beijing Representative Office, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Tsinghua University, as part of the Coalition for Urban Transitions China work programme. The report is funded by the UK government.

About the Coalition for Urban Transitions
The Coalition for Urban Transitions is the leading global initiative supporting the efforts of national governments to transform cities in ways that accelerate economic development and encourage climate action. The Coalition equips national governments with the evidence-based research and policy tools necessary to make cities zero-carbon, resilient, and inclusive. Its current in-country programmes in China and Mexico, historical work in five other countries, and its global policy and research work provide models for how national leaders can place cities at the heart of national development plans to meet their economic, social, and climate goals. Founded in 2016, the Coalition is comprised of 36 diverse stakeholders across five continents. It is a special initiative of the New Climate Economy and jointly managed by the World Resources Institute Ross Center and the C40 Cities.

Follow the Coalition’s work at, on LinkedIn, or on Twitter.

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