China 2049: How cities are fighting death and pollution

By Chia Jie Lin

These cities want to eradicate traffic deaths, waste and carbon emissions.

Image: Ged Caroll/Flickr - CC BY 2.0

In 2049, cities have been abandoned, their skyscrapers enveloped in a dirty yellow haze. Others, meanwhile, have become huge dumping grounds for metal and electronic waste.

These scenes from a future predicted in the film Blade Runner 2049 are a chilling reminder of what cities could look like if they don’t correct their course. Today, China is home to the largest dumping ground in the world, and its carbon emissions are rising at its fastest in seven years. It also has some of the fastest growing urban areas in the world.

Some cities in the country have taken things into their own hands, setting out ambitious visions to cut waste, emissions and even traffic deaths - to zero. GovInsider takes a look at what they have planned ahead.

Zero traffic deaths

Guangzhou has set its sights on eliminating all traffic deaths: it wants “zero deaths from traffic accidents”, said Cao Hui, senior engineer of urban planning at the Guangzhou Transport Planning Institute, during the World Cities Summit 2018.

It plans to use artificial intelligence (AI) to collect real-time information on traffic flows and visualise it, so officials can manage traffic more efficiently. “This will require lots of AI, and there are more than 10 projects happening now on the development of land transport,” Cao added. AI can detect accidents early, warn drivers, and reroute traffic to reduce the chances of death.

AI is already reducing deaths in another major city: Hangzhou. Its “City Brain” automatically detects traffic accidents so police and medics can arrive on site faster. “The City Brain can detect accidents within a second, and we can arrive at the site in 5 minutes,” Zheng Yijiong, China’s first traffic policeman with an AI partner, told Chinese media. The AI hub tracks ambulances en-route to hospitals and turns all red lights in its path to green, so patients can receive medical help in time.

Zero waste society

Shenzhen’s “landfills are so full, it’s hard to find new places to dump waste”, Shan Liang, vice-president of the city’s urban planning institute, told GovInsider. The country banned imports of foreign waste earlier this year, CNBC reported. But central authorities believe that more needs to be done.

The Ministry of Ecology and Environment is launching a zero-waste pilot to kickstart efforts to eliminate waste entirely. “What we want at the end is to build a zero waste society. A zero waste city is one way to get there,” said Qiu Qiwen, the ministry’s Director-General of Soil Environment Management, during the World Cities Summit. All resources must be constantly reused to minimise the disposal or burning of waste.
“What we want at the end is to build a zero waste society.”
The ministry is currently developing a management plan to scale zero waste pilot cities across China. It will roll out measures to “minimise the generation of waste right from the start, reuse the waste, and at the same time, ensure that when the waste is disposed of, it will be harmless to the environment,” said Qiu. One way to cut waste is to stipulate mining companies to carry out “green mining” practices, he added, which then reduces the ecological impact of mining practices.

For instance, the government has mandated that all coal mines must plant trees and seal off their facilities to minimise their pollution on the outside world, Reuters reported. The government has also enacted stricter policy measures on mines to ensure that they comply with state regulations, which ban inefficient mining and smelting practices that bring about massive pollution. Mines that do not comply with state regulations will be shut down by 2020.

Another key problem that the plan will address is agricultural waste. The ministry will “promote recycling of agro-waste” and encourage “eco-agriculture for less consumption of pesticide and fertiliser”, Qiu noted. In 2010, the country’s farms consumed 35% of the world’s nitrogen fertilisers, which led to heavy soil and water pollution.

Officials believe the zero-waste pilots will be completed in 2020. “Upon official approval by the central government, a batch of cities will be selected as zero waste pilots,” Qiu added.

Zero carbon

Rizhao, a small port city, wants to go carbon neutral. “I don’t know when we will succeed, but we will move in that way”, Fan Chengwei, a leader of the city’s environmental protection bureau, told Huffington Post. It plans to produce net zero carbon emissions, with any carbon dioxide produced from human activities absorbed by other means - like trees - so it doesn’t accumulate in the atmosphere.

The city promotes a “circular economy”, where resources are reused and recycled for other uses during its lifespan. For starters, the city converts the residue from citric acid production at one industrial park into feed for farm animals. This approach extends into energy use. It is replacing coal with renewable sources like solar, wind and gas, and other low-emission sources like nuclear energy to power the city’s operations.

Yet China’s past zero carbon attempts have fallen flat. Dongtan, for example, was touted as the world’s first eco-city in the early 2000s. Its planners promised to ban cars, recycle water and build organic farms and forests. The project was cut short when it was revealed that its key officials had received bribes and committed real-estate fraud. The city’s zero carbon projects have since languished indefinitely.

The original 1982 Blade Runner movie envisioned a future in 2019 with artificial intelligence. Today, this is a real area of focus for governments. Will the movie’s predictions for 2049 come true as well?