Bonn-Chengdu: Three lessons from green city partnerships

Closer cooperation between Chinese and western cities can help drive common solutions on climate change, if partnerships are formed in a more constructive way, writes Shinwei Ng.

As China continues to urbanise, its cities have become one of the major sources of greenhouse gases. In recent years, Chinese cities have made ambitious promises to cut emissions.

Thirty six cities (accounting for 33 per cent of China’s GDP and 18.5 per cent of its population) have joined the Low Carbon City Pilots programme (LCCPs) introduced by the Chinese government in 2010. Almost two-thirds of these cities have set more ambitious targets than the national goal of a 45 per cent reduction of carbon intensity.

Chinese cities have reached out to the international community to accelerate low carbon development. Many cities have either signed bilateral cooperation agreements with international counterparts or joined initiatives such as C40 Cities climate Leadership Group and the more recent Alliance of Peaking Pioneer Cities.

In particular, a number of city-to-city initiatives have been announced recently between Chinese, European and American cities, including Shenzhen-Los Angeles and Beijing-Los Angeles.

Over the past seven years, I have been involved in EU-China projects on low carbon city development, including the Bonn-Chengdu Low Carbon City Partnership through collaboration with Germanwatch – one of 12 partnerships established under an EU-China programme launched in 2012.  

The two cities worked together to draw up strategies to reduce energy, water and waste consumption in their hotels, restaurants and conference venues.

The tourist industry is an important income source for both cities and so offered a good first step to reduce emissions. It took more than two years for the two cities to agree on areas of cooperation and draw up a credible plan – in this case, it focused on tourism. Although each city partnership will be different, a few important lessons emerged from the Bonn-Chengdu experience that can help other cities get the most out of these partnerships.

Equal partnership 

Unlike the “one-directional” flow of resources from western to Chinese cities in the past, city-to-city cooperation denotes a more equal partnership between cities. A more equal exchange of resources, skills, experiences between two cities promotes a stronger commitment from both sides. This also helps cities to identify areas of common interest to cooperate on.

For example, after lengthy discussions and numerous visits, Bonn (the former capital of West Germany and the headquarters of the UN’s climate arm) and Chengdu (one of China’s biggest cities) agreed to collaborate on ‘sustainable tourism’ based on the flagship ‘Sustainable Bonn’ project, which had been running for a few years.

This has involved sharing experiences on building waste ‘cogeneration’ plants (or Combined Heat and Power plants - where heat and electricity are produced simultaneously), district heating and electric mobility.

Creating an equal partnership between cities requires commitment and planning. City administrations need to build trust and an understanding of each other’s processes and culture, as well as work across various departments.

This goes against the expectations of many Chinese cities that are used to the ‘one-directional’ method of cooperation where money flows in quickly and projects could start almost immediately. Hence it is crucial that expectations are managed from the very beginning.

The use of a ‘middleman’ who understands the work culture of both cities can greatly accelerate this process. This could either be a non-governmental organisation (in the case of the Bonn-Chengdu partnership) or a business entity such as a consultancy firm (in the case of the Shanghai-London Low Carbon Partnership).

Government buy-in

Ideally, low carbon city partnership should become an integral part of a city’s strategy instead of a fringe initiative handled by the foreign affairs department. Different government departments must appreciate the importance of the partnership, with strong leadership from city mayors. This requires a strong inter-departmental communication strategy and coordination, which is often lacking.

One good example of inter-departmental engagement was demonstrated by the Chengdu city government, led by the local Development and Reform Commission (DRC), which set up consultations with the various departments to compile a list of potential cooperative projects with Bonn.  

Western cities tend to struggle to find reciprocal benefits from Chinese cities in the short-term because of the different stages of development or governance practices. As a result, low carbon city partnerships are not prioritised when it comes to budget and resource allocation.

In Bonn’s case, the lack of financial investment was overcome by contributions resulting from expert consultations projects, such as ‘Sustainable Bonn’ project. However, cities need to focus on the long-term benefits of such collaboration – a more secure future that reduces climate risks for all cities.

In addition, Chinese cities can become a test bed for the deployment of new technology/systems as they do not face the problem of infrastructure legacy in developed cities.

Public participation

City partnerships need to garner support from the top city leadership down to individual citizens. Creating interest the capacity of the public– such as civil society organisations and business associations – to participate is critical. This ensures that the partnership is not subject to the whim of the political leadership, where commitments and interests fade away when the local mayor or party secretary moves on or government priorities change.

Involving non-governmental representatives can also unleash innovation and resources beyond the capability of the government. For the Bonn-Chengdu partnership, a ‘tripartite’ group of local governments, NGOs and business contact points was set up. These groups carried out technical training for businesses and mobilised the public to develop low carbon lifestyles.

Unfortunately, government officials tend to exclude NGOs and businesses in the name of efficiency, especially in China. Many low carbon city partnerships also mainly focus on technical cooperation with government affiliated research bodies. This not only limits the efficiency and potential scope of cooperation but also weakens the sustainability of the partnership.

The growing capacity of civil society and business groups in China to engage on low carbon issues provides a great opportunity for cities to create new ways of governance that maximise the use of local resources. For both western and Chinese cities, low carbon city partnerships should more actively engage citizens.

Civil society and business groups can play a strategic role in bridging the ‘knowledge’ and ‘trust’ gap by working as partners with local government.

Chinese cities can accelerate the clean transition by building a meaningful exchange of ideas and resources with their international counterparts – particularly through partnerships that focus on long-term and inclusive collaboration.  

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