(Photo by Greer Muldowney) 

With a population of 7 million people and a landmass of 426 square miles, Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated cities in the world. It also, along with mainland China, is undergoing a massive building boom. China is now the world’s largest construction market. It is estimated that half of the buildings erected every year worldwide are in China, where an urban area comparable to two times the size of Boston is added every month.

The repercussions for the environment are well known, as buildings are responsible for up to 40 percent of all the CO2 produced. Yet if China develops in a sustainable way, it can save annual CO2 emissions of 8.4 billion tons by 2030—the equivalent of the entire emissions of the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany combined. If it does not, energy use associated with buildings will rise 70 percent by 2020.

A wide range of policies to foster energy efficiency in buildings was articulated in China’s 2011 Five Year Plan, but as in the United States, Chinese developers generally associate the construction of green buildings with high upfront costs. Building green also requires a high level of precision in the design and construction phases that is hard to manage at a large scale, especially when much of China’s construction force is low-skilled migrant workers. And part of the current Five Year Plan is to increase sharply the construction of low-income housing, which tends to rely on inexpensive materials.

Still, China’s Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development announced that changes must be made. On June 15, 2011, Hao Bin, the ministry’s director of building energy efficiency, announced that Beijing is finalizing a national energy-labeling system for new building construction and the government is evaluating plans to subsidize certain kinds of energy-efficient building materials. How this will happen or whether it will happen soon remains to be seen.

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