Photograph by David Gray, Reuters

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Harbin, in China's northeast, plays up its "Ice City" reputation with its annual Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival, where ice sculptures were on display January 4. But in its real buildings, officials are making renovations that they predict will increase energy efficiency by 50 percent.

Photograph by David Gray, Reuters

In China’s Icy North, Outfitting Buildings to Save Energy

In Harbin, China—known as “Ice City” —a government drive aims to curb the energy wasted keeping drafty homes and buildings warm.

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

Jin-Xing Ma's apartment has a new hat, and a five-layered coat. Standing in her living room, her trim frame ensconced in a purple sweater, Ma is effusive about her home's new wardrobe.

Here in the China’s northeast, where winter temperatures plummet to -40ºF (-40º C), cities are getting serious about giving old, drafty buildings a face-lift. Last year, Harbin (map) spent $1.1 million to retrofit 21 million square feet (2 million square meters) of residential buildings—adding five new layers of wall insulation, as well as better windows and roofing that tenants like Ma affectionately describe as the building's new "winter clothes."

“Before, the temperature in this room was 12 degrees [Celsius, or 53ºF]. Now it’s 18 degrees [Celsius, or 64ºF],” said Ma, 76, surveying the apartment with pleasure. For Ma, who runs a small Chinese medicine shop with her husband out of their front room, the change has meant fewer chilly days for both herself and her customers.

The Challenge to Keep Warm

Beijing’s snarled traffic and the smokestacks smoldering over the Pearl River Delta may be the most iconic images of China’s environmental woes.

But these days, policymakers are increasingly turning their attention to the buildings of China’s industrial northeast, as well. This is the country’s frigid rust belt, where cold fronts roll in directly from Siberia’s frozen tundra to the north, and residences need to be heated six months out of the year.

After all, in the developed world, fully 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions come from heating, cooling, and powering buildings. Already in China, nearly 30 percent of the country’s energy is absorbed by its building sector—a figure that has tripled within three decades, and growing.

(Related: “The Carbon Bathtub”)

In 2006, as part of the country’s most recent five-year plan, China pledged to reduce overall energy intensity by 20 percent. It’s an ambitious goal, one that local officials were scrambling to meet by the end of 2010—shuttering factories and even briefly powering down hospitals in a last-ditch scramble to reach their quotas.

But if China does hit its 20 percent target, it won’t be thanks to improvements to the building sector, said Mark Levine, head of the China Energy Group at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “Efforts in this area have been terrible,” said Levine. National subsidies, he noted, have been too slim to inspire much effort at the municipal level, where cities have typically used the funds to install meters instead of embarking on more costly retrofits.

But there have been a few notable exceptions, including Harbin, the largest city and capital of Heilongjiang province, with a population of nearly 10 million, a place often known as “Ice City.” Officials in Harbin project that the retrofitting drive of 2010 will increase energy efficiency in affected areas by 50 percent. Other cities also have embarked on efforts to make buildings more energy efficient, like Qingdao (map) in the eastern Shandong province and Lanzhou (map), capital of Gansu province in the northwest. And across China, there has been one improvement that officials are quick to note: compliance with existing building codes has increased to at least 98 percent, according to government figure.

Still, such progress might not “necessarily result in energy savings, because living standards are increasing as well,” said Ping Yowargana, Beijing-based energy analyst with Azure International. China is adding new buildings at a clip of 22 billion new square feet (2 billion new square meters) a year—which means more concrete being poured, more steel being manufactured, and additional mass consumption of energy. At the same time, residents these days expect more air conditioning, lighting, and heat than ever before. Accordingly, even a building at code today can still use energy in excess of its leaky, poorly insulated predecessors.

Then there’s the fact that China’s heating sector is riddled with inefficiencies, including pricing systems that create no incentive to conserve. For example, Ma pays a flat sum of 200 renminbi ($30) per year to supply her heat—a fee charged according to the size of her residence, not her energy use. Which is why Ma won’t be turning down the thermostat anytime soon.

“It’s warm and cozy inside now,” she said. “The government takes good care of us.”

A Need for Deeper Change

Heating price reform—already under way in certain regions—and better funding for retrofitting efforts will likely be a priority in the next five-year plan, said Levine. What’s less clear, he said, is whether China’s central planners can effectively push the country beyond the heavy, energy-intensive industry that’s propelled it forward. “They have to make structural change in the economy,” he said. “And so far, that hasn’t happened.”

Back in Harbin, some residents continue to eye retrofitting programs with suspicion. Although the effort was government-financed, a number of Ma’s neighbors complain bitterly that the construction was slapdash, and that the material won’t weather the years well. Meanwhile in Shanghai, after a blaze took 58 lives in a building undergoing renovations, sparking local furor, all other retrofitting projects were temporarily halted.

“Right now, the government wants to complete goals faster, Chinese-style. There are big targets,” said Ruidong Jin, building energy efficiency expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council. China’s national energy efficiency goals are ambitious, he says, and municipalities just focus on keeping pace.

“There’s not much time to talk to people and make them understand,” said Jin. “Local governments have to keep moving, faster.”

Te-Ping Chen is a writer based in Sichuan, China.

(See photos of China, including the Harbin Ice Festival, submitted to National Geographic by users like you.)

This story has been changed from a previous version to correct the conversion of -40ºF to Celsius.