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· Robin Nicholson

USA (UK CHINA) Sustainability Talk

How can the UK help China lead the environmental revolution the world needs?

Hearing the result of the US Presidential elections while in Chongqing in central China, I realised just how important UK-China built environment 'green' research was now that China (sans Trump) would have to provide global leadership on climate change (and we are out of Europe). On my return to the UK I thought we should devote one of our bi-monthly Sustainability Talks reflecting on this situation.  We gathered together eight of us who had been at the built environment climate conference SBE16 in Chongqing last November, four of them speaking. A number of others with experience of working there joined in the discussion.

Former Guardian foreign affairs leader writer John Gittings set the geopolitical scene for us with a brief history of China's changing fortunes in the twentieth century identifying 5 areas of concern.

  1. Human Rights has never been an issue between USA and China (and UK too).
  2. The widely accepted One China policy on Taiwan to agree to disagree, now threatened by President Trump.
  3. US- China Trade with China's currency being under-valued; the Chinese have bought a lot of American debt, ‘a weapon they cannot use’.
  4. Activities in the South China Sea islands are enclosed by the ‘9 dash line’ but do they claim sovereignty to the South China Sea? Trump’s strategist Stephen Bannon has forecast war in the South China Sea within 5 years! and
  5. International Relations between USA and China who are Pacific Powers. Historically there was USA, Russia and China, John reminded us that it was Nixon who had opened up these relations and how it was Kissinger who had invented the One China Formula. Trump has written how he sees China ‘as the enemy’. China has recently thought that it was best being global no 2, but is that still true?

China/UK/Chongqing/London comparative sizes. Image courtesy of Matthew Priestman.

We were fortunate that architect Matthew Priestman was able to come and explain how he saw the UK-China relationship. He has a lively practice in Chongqing (and Hong Kong) and had organised a fascinating 3-day multi-disciplinary RIBA/Chongqing workshop for young professionals with help from Andrew Baldwin, Mike Murray and me, in November. Matthew explained how the history of London's fight with smog and attitudes towards fairness had much to offer even though Chongqing's rapid expansion is quite new and its density is four times that of London. He saw four key stages to London's development

  1. War and destruction
  2. Realisation of the modernist dream.
  3. The rise of Memory and Reaction and
  4. Resolution through intelligent pluralism.

Matthew proposed a three step programme of

  1. Formation of a panel of (urban) experts
  2. Exploration of the London story and
  3. A programme of exchange visits.

Former Head of Sustainability at Arup, Chris Twinn, now TwinnSustainabilityInnovation, explained the importance of understanding our different cultural mores - for example a Chinese person nodding signifies hearing, not agreeing. He reflected on lessons from Dong Tang, where the Arup masterplan was designed without much thought being given to implementation, with disastrous consequences.  China's transformation has been very rapid and they are now consuming at a level of 1.5 Planets as we export our ‘standard of living’ as though we had 3 Planets (USA 5) to plunder. There was a discussion about the 'weird architecture' but he explained that in China a masterplan would normally rely on one consultant, whereas in the UK we would have 40, and their traffic engineers rule absolutely.  The UK's talents include stakeholder engagement, feedback and a drive for continuous improvement.

Briony Turner of UKCIP thought that it was a two-way exchange and we had a lot to learn from China. She reminded us that we are still wrestling with problems like over-heating. She described UKCIP as a boundary organisation bringing together Policy, Business and Research. They manage the ARCC Network where she is a Knowledge Transfer Manager. ARCC has a number of publicly funded joint research projects looking into cities and energy infrastructure with a special interest in retrofit, building form and micro-climate. She had found the Chinese to be excellent networkers but that they were not so good at putting new knowledge into practice. The British have an insatiable curiosity which is rare in China although Chinese women are empowered.

On behalf of the RIBA, Peter Oborn widened the discussion to give a more global perspective. He described the scale and complexity of such international affairs with reference to a UK energy study in Oman that had uncovered a potential for social unrest. Despite the global weakness of architects, he lauded the UK Built Environment Advisory Group joint venture launched at Habitat III in 2016 with RIBA, RTPI and the Institution of Structural Engineers and he described the opportunities within the 2015 UK National Security Strategy and the Prosperity Fund.

Professor Runming Yao divides her time between Reading University and Chongqing University. While we were in China she had launched the Chongqing-Reading Joint International Research Laboratory of Green Buildings and Built Environments with Cambridge and Loughborough Universities and other international Institutions. She showed the rapid growth of collaborative China/UK research projects since 2003 and some current programmes. This had helped Chongqing to outperform many other Universities on climate research including major Beijing Institutions.

Diagram illustrating the rapid growth of UK/China built environment research programmes - tbc... Image courtesy of Prof Runming Yao.

After such a comprehensive series of presentations the discussion was short and sharp before continuing the discussions on a one to one basis. Now we need to consider in detail how to proceed but what is clear is that continuing UK Government funding for such research is vital for the future of UK and is greatly appreciated in China.

Robin

 

The Speakers

  • John Gittings - China specialist and foreign affairs leader writer at The Guardian (1983 - 2003)
  • Matthew Priestman - Partner, Priestman Architects, London, Hong Kong and Chongqing
  • Chris Twinn - TwinnSustainabilityInnovation, a multi-disciplinary designer who has worked on innovate eco-cities/buildings/homes in the UK, China, Australia...
  • Briony Turner - UKCIP and Knowledge Exchange Manager for ARCC (Adaptation and Resilience in the Context of Change)
  • Peter Oborn - Architect, global client advisor and RIBA Vice President International
  • Prof Runming Yao - University of Reading and University of Chongqing

The talk took place at Cullinan Studio on Thursday 9th March 2017.

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