Lauren Nassef

During a 2010 visit to Shanghai, I had a memorable conversation with Eric Phillips, AIA, who leads the Shanghai office of NBBJ. As we traversed the Huangpu River from Pudong to Puxi by ferry—not an experience for the faint-hearted, given the number and pace of boats plying the crowded waterway—we discussed the future of China, which is striving to balance industrial development with environmental priorities. One benefit of China’s top-down government, Phillips said, is that when its leaders want sustainability, rapid and decisive change happens.

The evidence is clear in China’s national development priorities: alternative energy, energy efficiency, environmental protection, biotechnology, advanced IT, high-end manufacturing, and new-energy vehicles. Simultaneously, the nation’s massive investment in college education will usher in a generation of knowledge-workers prepared to fulfill these priorities.

The results are staggering. In the last four years, China’s government-subsidized production of solar panels grew 17-fold, causing the price of silicon-based PV panels to plummet and driving non-Chinese manufacturers out of business. China now manufactures nearly half of the world’s solar panels.

Buildings stand to benefit directly from China’s export of relatively inexpensive solar cells, as well as from the country’s development goals. But not all news from China is rosy. Beijing’s air pollution levels are 20 times that of the World Health Organization limits. Chemical spills are not infrequent—the recent Handan incident that affected more than a million people is one in a series of disasters. Yet, the Chinese people’s increased awareness of such problems is positive, as it intensifies pressure on the government.

In the U.S., environmental legislation remains politically controversial. “Climate change” was never mentioned by the candidates during the most recent presidential debates. Although the U.S. holds on as a leader in clean technology, lukewarm government support and stiff competition from subsidized fossil fuels have hampered development. As a result, many domestic innovations have moved overseas—as the recent buyout of U.S. solar cell manufacturers by Chinese companies exemplifies. But with nearly two-thirds of U.S. voters supporting government action against climate change, sustainability might figure more prominently in our country’s future priorities.

Meanwhile, China’s struggles could be a lesson for the U.S. Does sustainability require a minimum amount of time and investment, regardless of a nation’s political system, economic health, or will? Are we doomed to years of further environmental damage before a radical transformation in global industrial oper-ations occurs? China’s path to green, for one, mirrored our ferry ride across the Huangpu: a slightly harrowing experience that ultimately delivered results.