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· Robin Nicholson

Reflections on China: Part 1

The importance of UK academic links with China

When I was invited to speak at an international climate conference in central China (SBE16) in early November I jumped at the opportunity as I had never been to mainland China.  Working on our Singapore Management University twelve years ago in no way prepared me for the size, scale or vibrancy of Chongqing.  The city has a population of about 8.5m in a city state of 32m and last year the economy grew by 16.4%.

Chongqing City is delightfully hilly and heavily treed, if traditionally a foggy city at the confluence of the Jialing and Yangtze rivers.  During the Second World War it became the Provisional Capital under Chiang Kai-shek and a key centre for the UK and US Commands; after the war the capital was moved back to Beijing but since then the growth of Chongqing has been continuous.  

The overwhelming impression is of residential towers, now 40 storeys, up from the earlier 30 and 25, as far as the eye can see.  There are agricultural and industrial gaps in this forest but there is little European suburbia.  This huge growth in residential construction has created the strange situation whereby a population of 1.4 billion has a ‘choice’ of 4 billion homes.  The ubiquitous and often tightly packed towers are getting more sophisticated but have surely built in quite a problem as we all move towards Carbon neutrality.  It’s been easy to build them but how do you do deep green retrofit on this scale?

A typical cluster of towers with glazed corners

Well-built structurally but uninsulated, most flats are sold as shell and core often without windows, kitchens or bathrooms, which the purchaser then fits out, or not.  Many are bought as investments but remain empty, creating strange elevations accompanied by the continuous noise of construction, even in the poshest clusters.  One cannot avoid wondering whether it is possible to design an energy positive tower?  And if so, why aren’t we building them in London and China?

The young we spoke with all practice adaptive comfort, keeping thick coats on indoors as Chongqing sits below the Qin-Huai line, drawn in the 1950’s, where one may not have centralised or district heating.  No doubt, back then, this was a sensible distribution of very limited resources but now it means that everyone who can afford it installs split-system air-con (in effect an air-source heat pump) and runs it in reverse in the winter – neither efficient nor pretty.  Many flats have projecting corner balconies, which provide space for clothes drying and shade the windows below; but most get glazed in and go from being environmentally effective to ensuring over-heating; damp clothes don’t create good living conditions!

The SBE16 Conference provided the opportunity for research leaders to exchange their findings but for me it celebrated the scale of the UK/China climate research; the day after the Conference we helped launch the new, well-funded Joint International Research Laboratory of Green Buildings and Built Environments. As the full horror of the US election dawned on us, it became clear that they had ceded global leadership on climate change to China. 

Although the Brexit vote has damaged the UK’s reputation for being logical and sensible, it is essential that we maintain the funding for these joint research projects so we are part of the global solution; and that we discount foreign students from immigration statistics, allowing the Chinese and others who have already abandoned the UK for USA to come back here from the Trumpland. 

Looking north from the central University campus

Robin Nicholson

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