International Synergies selected as 'sophisticated dating agency' to help share UK's experience of improving energy efficiency and waste reduction
Jonathan Watts in Tianjin
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 23 March 2010 17.40 GMT
A British company was recruited today into a pioneering role in China's efforts to clean up and decarbonise its economy.
International Synergies, a Birmingham-based firm, has been asked to share the UK's experience of improving energy efficiency and reducing waste with one of the biggest industrial powerhouses in China.
Tianjin Economic-Technological Development Area, a zone in north-eastern China with a GDP of about £30bn pounds a year, aims to reinvent itself as the Silicon Valley of low-carbon technology.
But first it must deal with the legacy of dirty and inefficient smoke-stack industry and low-cost manufacturing.
To reduce emissions and waste, Tianjin has teamed up with the European Union to fund one of China's first "industrial symbiosis" programmes.
In the initial four-year stage, it aims to bring 800 companies together, reduce 365,000 tonnes of landfill waste and 99,000 tonnes of carbon emissions.
Though relatively small in scale, the organisers hope powerful backing from Tianjin and the EU will enable the programme to be replicated on a national scale.
The programme aims to find efficiency gains between companies. By identifying and sharing needs, the waste of one firm can become the fuel or recycled raw materials of another. Chimney steam can be diverted to heat greenhouses. Unused meat and bone from cattle rendering can be burned as fuel for cement production.
"It's like a sophisticated dating agency," said Peter Laybourn, the head of International Synergies. "We bring companies together that would not normally be introduced to one another."
Since 2002, he said, the National Industrial Symbiosis Programme that he helped to start in the UK has reduced 30m tonnes of carbon dioxide, trimmed landfill waste by 35m tonnes and created 8,770 jobs.
"If we can achieve that in the UK, think what fantastic potential there is in China," he told a packed audience in Tianjin.
China has long been criticised for using a great deal of energy and raw materials for a relatively small economic gain, though this is largely because it is a late developing economy that produces many of the world's most polluting and energy-intensive goods.
"There is still a big gap in industrial efficiency between China and developed countries," said Zhang Jun, the deputy chair of the Tianjin Area.
As the EU and other partners unveiled a new low carbon centre in Tianjin, he said it was in the region's interests to adopt and adapt know-how from overseas.
"This is important for our image, for our competitiveness," he said. "If we do this well, we can develop and nurture a low-carbon industry with implications for the world."
Not everyone is happy about this. In an echo of cold war fears of the space race, US politicians and commentators have recently expressed concerns that China may take the lead in low-carbon technology and dominate the future of the power industry.
But representatives from the EU, which provided 80% of the funding for the Tianjin project, said China's rapid transition to a low carbon economy was in the world's interest.
"This is the new industrial revolution," said Johan Cauwenbergh, minister counsellor of the EU. "The transition to a low carbon economy won't be easy, but the longer we postpone taking the necessary steps, the more it will hurt later."
The representative of the United Nations expressed hope that the new project will produce verifiable results that can convince the outside world of the potential for change.
"The world is in desperate need of successful models to reduce carbon emissions," said Edward Clarence-Smith of the UN Industrial Development Organisation. "We hope this project can be replicated throughout China and to other developing countries."
The political subtext of the programme is an attempt to convince China – the world's biggest greenhouse gas emitter – that it can benefit from efficiency improvements and the promotion of clean technology.
"We very strongly want to get across the message that there is no contradiction between economic growth and low-carbon development," said Alistair Morgan, commercial counsellor of the British Embassy. "We hope more regions in China will implement the industrial symbiosis model and enjoy the major benefits of sustainable development."