How Baoding, China, becomes world’s first ‘carbon positive’ city

The mayor goes on a crusade to make it a hub of renewable energy.

Peter Ford
Mayor Yu Qun is making Baoding a hub of renewable energy.

Yu Qun’s journey into a low-carbon future began with a bad case of smelly fish.

Scarcely had Mr. Yu been named mayor of this city 100 miles southwest of Beijing when fish in his region’s largest lake began dying by the thousands. He had only one option, he felt: to close several hundred factories whose pollution was to blame.

That cost his city nearly two percentage points in annual economic growth – the Holy Grail by which Chinese officials have long been measured. And it taught him a lesson.

“Polluting first and cleaning up later is very expensive,” says the boyish-looking mayor, a former college math teacher. “So we chose renewable energy to replace traditional industry.”

In three years, Yu has transformed Baoding from an automobile and textile town into the fastest-growing hub of solar, wind, and biomass energy-equipmentmakers in China. Baoding now has the highest growth rate of any city in Hebei Province. Its “Electricity Valley” industrial cluster – consciously modeled on Silicon Valley – has quadrupled its business.

Baoding is an ancient city, but its outskirts have an unsettled feel. Between serried ranks of high-rise apartment blocks and shiny new factories turning out wind turbines and solar-powered traffic lights, fields of corn and sunflowers still grow.

They will soon be memories, though, and memories are short when you are moving fast. “Ideal City – Since 2008,” boasts a billboard for a new residential complex.

Seeking a new development path for his city after the slaughter of its fish, Yu traveled to Spain and Germany, leaders in the renewable energy field. That trip convinced him that “renewables are the trend of the future,” he recalls. But “the biggest lesson I learned was that the new energy industry ... has a very high potential for growth and for profit.”

He had a hard time persuading his superiors in the provincial and central governments of that, though. “People thought I was impractical ... that renewable energy was 30 or 40 years away ... that I was just playing with ideas,” Yu says. “Some of my policies met great resistance.”

Not surprising, perhaps, since the mayor has a tendency to talk grandly about the “dawn of ecological civilization.” But he also has his financial head screwed on firmly.

Such has been the success of his perseverance, and of the advantages that Baoding offered new “green-tech” investors, that the city now houses nearly 200 renewable energy companies. One of them makes blades for wind farms in Texas. Another is providing the solar panels for the largest solar power station in the world, in Portugal.

They are all filling Yu’s tax coffers. “New energy has become a pillar industry in our city,” the mayor says. Within two years, he forecasts, it will have overtaken the auto and textile sectors as the most important mainstay of the local economy.

And what’s good for Baoding may be good for the world. By one reckoning, the city is the world’s first to go “carbon positive”: The carbon saved annually worldwide through the use of equipment made here outweighs the city’s own emissions.

Baoding’s experience shows that renewable energy “is starting to become a business even in China, which is not known as a leading provider of technology,” says Rasmus Reinvang, an energy analyst with the World Wide Fund for Nature. “China is such a huge market, it can unleash companies that become significant global players. When China moves, the world shakes.”

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