Written by Sha Yu.

China, as the world’s largest carbon emitter and energy consumer, also has the world’s largest construction market. In the past five years, China has added around 3 billion square metres of building floorspace annually (China Statistical Yearbook 2014, Table 10-7). The building floorspace in China today exceeds that of the United States and European Union combined.

The growth of building floorspace was accompanied by rising energy demands. Between 2000 and 2012, China’s building energy use increased by around 40%, while building electricity use grew by more than 200% (IEA Statistics). Although China’s per capita building energy use is relatively low compared to industrialized countries, demand for greater floorspace coupled with growing energy services have narrowed this gap.

Building energy use in China is expected to continue to increase in the coming decades, driven by fast urbanization, income growth, and higher quality of life. Implementing energy efficiency policies in Chinese buildings is therefore essential to avoid the long-term lock-in effects of a carbon-intensive infrastructure.

Curbing energy consumption in China’s buildings sector is critical and creates significant opportunities to restrict greenhouse gas emissions. The Chinese government has developed a wide range of policies that promote building energy efficiency and aim to slow down the growth of building energy use, demonstrated in the Green Building Action Plan and the 12th Five-Year Plan on Building Energy Efficiency. The recently announced Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) also reaffirmed the importance of controlling emissions from the buildings sector through policy measures.

Energy codes are one of the most effective ways to reduce energy use in buildings. China’s building energy codes set minimum energy efficiency requirements for building envelope; heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems, power systems and water heating. The requirements are specific to individual climate zones. Issued by the Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (MOHURD), China’s building energy codes are national codes and mandatory for new construction and major renovations in urban residential and commercial buildings. Chinese provinces and cities can issue more stringent building codes themselves. There is also a voluntary standard for rural residential buildings.

The stringency of building energy codes has increased over the years. However, there are still opportunities for further enhancement. Currently, energy use intensity in Chinese buildings is less than that of OECD countries, and this is largely caused by the differences in the level of building services and operation. Buildings energy codes in China are less stringent than the equivalent standards in the United States.

Meanwhile, China does not have a schedule or pathway to improve its building energy codes. By contrast, the United States updates its building energy codes every three years, supported by a code development roadmap. Several European countries develop plans and pathways to reach the net-zero energy building target. Having a fixed schedule and pathway to improve building energy codes will help instil confidence in the market and prepare stakeholders to adopt and implement more rigorous standards over time.

Policy enforcement is also critical to achieving the desired outcomes of energy savings and carbon emission reduction. Local human and institutional capacity, economic conditions, levels of standardization in energy efficiency, awareness of energy conservation, and market readiness for energy efficiency products would all affect the implementation of building energy codes.

Compliance with building energy codes is as important, if not more important, than stringency. However, data on compliance are scarce. MOHURD reported improved compliance in the last 10 years and showed extremely high compliance rates at both the design and construction stages in the last five years. Studies, however, have indicated that compliance rates are high in large cities and problematic in smaller cities and towns.

Beyond energy codes, the Chinese government is also devoting resources to promote green buildings. Two prevailing green building rating systems are the Three-Star certification issued by MOHURD and the Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design certified by the U.S. Green Building Council. The green building rating system goes beyond energy codes requirements and also covers land use, water savings, material savings, indoor environmental quality, and operations and management.

Currently, the national and provincial governments provide subsidies for green buildings rated by the Three-Star system and the level of subsidies varies by province. Despite significant subsidies, there still are challenges in rolling out green buildings at scale, such as lack of capacity at the local level and the complicated application procedure. In addition, most green buildings in China only obtain design certifications, which means energy consumption at the operation stage could still be high.

The Chinese government has also rolled out large-scale energy efficiency retrofit programs in existing buildings. These programs historically have been focused on residential buildings in the northern heating zone, and then extended to residential buildings in the South and public buildings. According to the Green Building Action Plan, 450 million m2 of residential floorspace is anticipated to be retrofitted between 2011 and 2015 throughout China. In addition to the government mandates, market mechanisms such as the energy performance contracting are also encouraged in energy efficiency retrofits.

With population and economic growth, and increased demand for energy services, the Chinese buildings sector becomes increasingly critical to global climate change mitigation. Various building energy policies have the potential to improve the efficiency of China’s buildings sector and curb the rising energy use and emissions.

However, whether and to what extent building energy policies could offset the strong growth trend is still unknown. In addition to the plan of controlling carbon emissions in buildings in China’s INDC, a long-term strategy and pathway beyond 2020 are needed for achieving low-carbon growth in China’s building sector.

Sha Yu is a scientist in the Joint Global Change Research Institute, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Image credit: CC by Thomas Depenbusch/Flickr.