Ningbo: Feasibility of peaking carbon by 2018

Ningbo on the Yangtze Delta is one of 90 cities to participate in China’s Low Carbon Cities Pilot Program. With help from the Siemens City Performance Tool, it aims to reach peak carbon ahead of the national schedule as a pioneer in China’s efforts to achieve its climate targets.

“Let some people get rich first!” – China’s former leader Deng Xiaoping coined this famous phrase when the country set out on its path to economic reform. What Deng meant was this: In order for the whole country to succeed, some regions and some people would have to be first. One cannot do everything at once. 


This has worked rather well. During the past 40 years, China’s economic development has been nothing short of spectacular. “Let some get rich first” has resulted in an enormous reduction of poverty that opened new possibilities for hundreds of millions of people. 


At the same time, the fast growth of China’s economy has come at considerable ecological cost. In 2007, China overtook the USA as the world’s largest emitter of CO2. To keep things in perspective, though, from 1980 to 2016, per capita GDP in China grew by a factor of approximately 26. During the same time, CO2 emissions per capita grew by a factor of 5.5. Economic output grew much faster than the carbon footprint. 

“Let some get carbon efficient first”

Ecological sustainability remains a challenge, however, and China’s government has a whole set of programs in place to meet that challenge. The country remains committed to the targets it set for itself with the Paris Climate Agreement – reaching peak carbon by 2030. At the same time, China continues to pursue economic growth.

In order to reach both goals, China’s approach to reducing its carbon footprint bears some similarity with Deng’s famous slogan to “let some get rich first.” While the overall target is to increase sustainability for the country as a whole, some especially advanced regions and cities are to get there first. 


“This is why cities play an integral role in helping China achieve its national climate goals,” says Bob Zheng of the Siemens Center of Competence in Shanghai. “Beijing chose three batches of pilot cities. Nearly 90 cities and regions are on that list.” Their job is to reach peak carbon ahead of the national schedule and blaze a trail for the country at large.

Cities play an integral role in helping China achieve its national climate goals.
Bob Zheng, Siemens Center of Competence, Shanghai

Ningbo, located in the Yangtze River Delta near Shanghai, is one of these cities. With nearly 8 million inhabitants, it is roughly the size of London. Situated amid of one of the world’s largest manufacturing hubs, it plays an important role in China’s economy.

Ahead of schedule

Ningbo is now considering and verifying an ambitious target with regards to greenhouse gas emissions: to reach peak CO2 output by 2018 – twelve years ahead of the national schedule.


“Historically, Ningbo is an industrial hub,” says Zheng. “Our study has taken into account its plans to transform its industry without adding heavy industry in the future. It also shows the impact of various measures with regards to green and smart technologies.”

Ningbo was first designated the status as a pilot city in 2012. If business in the city had continued as usual, the city’s CO2 emissions would have continued to grow from roughly 77 million tonnes in 2013 to about 82.3 million tonnes in 2018 and 89.8 million tonnes in 2030. However, using the City Performance Tool (CyPT), Ningbo and Siemens identified a set of measures that can turn this trajectory around. Under this plan, Ningbo’s CO2output could reach 73.5 million tonnes in 2018, well below 2013 levels. 


At the same time, economic growth remains a central aim of Ningbo’s government. By providing planners with a detailed analysis that helps them assess the cost and effectiveness of each potential set and subset of measures, CyPT creates scope for the city to develop without missing its carbon goals. This is precisely the target that China has set for the country as a whole. “Naturally, economic indicators such as GDP remain very important for Chinese cities,” says Zheng. “Reducing the carbon output is considered a key enabler for a more sustainable city development without compromising GDP.”

Outsmarting the devil in the detail

Bringing down CO2 emissions is a complex task that must incorporate energy generation and distribution, building technology, traffic, and industry. Each of these is in itself a complex bundle of factors.


For instance, reducing the carbon footprint associated with energy generation in Ningbo can potentially be done in all sorts of ways, such as through investments in renewables, combined cycle gas turbines, smart grids, or retrofitting coal-fired power plants. Which should be prioritized in an optimal plan for Ningbo? CyPT delivers precise figures for each potential bundle of measures. It shows the result of each in terms of CO2 reduction, and also relates this “yield” to the investment required and to the time needed for implementation.

Retrofitting coal plants, for instance, comes second in terms of CO2 reduction, while investments in clean and distributed energy yield even higher cutbacks at comparatively low cost. This analysis can be broken down further. Among clean energy production measures in Ningbo, combined cycle gas turbines have the biggest savings potential, followed by wind, solar, and the combined generation of energy for cooling, heat, and power (CCHP). If, however, the savings potentials of these measures are compared against their costs, CCHP turns out to be the most effective lever.

Pilot cities and national targets

This approach is applied across the board, from transport, where investments in new metro lines and reducing headway in the subway have the highest savings potential, to industry, where CyPT spotted the potential to reduce overall energy consumption by 10 percent. In the sphere of building technology, CyPT found considerable potential for reducing CO2 through automation (326,000 tonnes), improved building envelopes (270,00 tonnes), and efficient lighting (161,000 tonnes). “So far, the measures recommended by the CyPT study are well on track,” says Zheng.


Models based on this sort of detailed analysis help planners set priorities. In Ningbo, this means that the city can meet its targets without harming its opportunities for economic development. It is these twin goals – economic growth and ecological sustainability – that form the main guide rails of China’s future development. Ningbo’s approach to sustainable development demonstrates how it can be done.

Geographical area: 9,816 km2


Population: 7.8 million


Energy mix:

Hard coal 72.6%

Hydro 22.2%

Nuclear 3.7%

Wind 1.5%


Buildings (area per capita):

Residential – 32.9 m2/person

Nonresidential – 8 m2/person


Passenger kilometers: 20.1 km/person/day


Author: Justus Krüger, independent journalist based in Hong Kong

Picture credits: Siemens AG

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