Low carbon strategies and practice

Low carbon strategies and practice


Dr. Miao Xu

Miao Xu holds a Ph.D. in Urban and Regional Studies from the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden. She acts as an enterprise mentor for master’s students at Tianjin University and a committee member of the Resilient City Council (RCC) of the Chinese Society for Urban Studies (CSUS). She is the partner at MM&Partners, and previously was the General Coordinator and Technical Director for Sweco China. She is a registered first-class architect and a senior engineer in China, specialising in sustainable development planning and sustainability research. With 21 years of professional experience, including 13 years at international companies and 16 years on local projects, Dr. Xu has been involved in various significant projects including the planning and design of the “Academician Valley” in the Jinghe New Town of Xi’an Xixian New Area (winner of the first prize in an international competition, recipient of the 2020 American Green City Planning and Design Award, and winner of the second prize for excellent urban and rural planning and design projects in Shaanxi Province in 2021), and the architectural design of the Westward Expansion Era Center in Xicheng, Jinan (with a total floor area of 800,000 square meters, LEED Gold certified, LEED Platinum certified for Operations + Maintenance, rated three stars for green building, with the first phase already completed).


The consensus on green circular development has been firmly established and low-carbon construction becomes a long-term trend in future urban development, offering a crucial pathway to combat the global climate change crisis. However, numerous misconceptions persist too, necessitating forward-thinking and systematic approaches which entail the collaboration of various stakeholders and active public engagement for the implementation of low-carbon transition. In this issue, we engage in a dialogue with Dr. Miao Xu, a low-carbon and ecological urban practitioner with both international and local experience. The discussion delves into key concepts, effective methodologies, and experiences in low-carbon design and management from both domestic and international perspectives.


Low-carbon urban practices require proactive consideration of carbon issues, aiming to reduce both embodied carbon and operational carbon. This necessitates the exploration of integrated collaboration approaches across policy, technology, methodology, and funding domains.

1. How to understand the concept and connotation of a “zero-carbon community”? Are there any differences in practical experience and design schemes between domestic and foreign contexts? Can you provide some examples?

Zero-carbon community” primarily refers to achieving a balance between carbon emissions and carbon absorption through carbon reduction measures and carbon trading. Some countries set baselines for buildings, where if emissions fall below this baseline, they can be considered as zero-carbon buildings. Taking the Beddington Zero Energy Development (BedZED) community in the UK as an example, its essence is not zero-carbon construction, but rather achieving low carbon through energy-saving measures, material recycling, photovoltaic applications, heat exchange, and green transportation.

Currently, the main difference between domestic and foreign practices lies in the emphasis on different stages of “carbon calculation”. From a whole life cycle perspective, carbon emissions are mainly divided into “operational carbon” and “embodied carbon”. Operational carbon refers to emissions generated during the operation of a region or building, such as electricity, heating, lighting, cooling, etc. while embodied carbon refers to emissions generated during the production of materials, such as manufacturing, transportation, disposal, etc., typically represented in the form of labels. In the Greater London area, there is not only a focus on reducing operational carbon but also strict limitations and regulations on reducing embodied carbon. In Sweden, it is required to provide labels with information of carbon emissions generated during the material production process, providing reliable references for material selection. In contrast, China mainly focuses on managing operational carbon and it remains as an early stage for encouraging or mandating reductions in embodied carbon. Such a difference means that some foreign practical experiences cannot be directly applied to localised construction. Meanwhile, the current lack of policy guidance and regulations makes it difficult to require developers and designers to choose low-carbon materials in order to reduce embodied carbon. Therefore, the main focus is limited on adopting flexible design at the design stage, such as increasing the lifespan of building components and reducing the frequency of repairs and replacements.


2. Why is an integrated approach necessary for “Symbio Cities”? How can the holistic and systematic thinking of symbiotic cities contribute to low-carbon transformation within the context of industrial parks? How applicable is this in the domestic context?

“Symbio City” was formally introduced by the Swedish government and the Swedish Trade Council at the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg in 2002. The core idea is to adopt a systemic approach from a holistic perspective and organize collaboration among stakeholders at the early stages of a project to achieve systemic solutions. Cities face complex problems that involve various domains, requiring the integration of multidisciplinary knowledge. “Symbio City” not only aims to gather interdisciplinary talents but also to promote collaboration through a working methodology. For example, in a project, government agencies, developers, and designers need to collaborate, conducting SWOT analysis from different professional domains such as transportation, energy, and environment to identify key challenges and seek collaborative solutions. The “Symbio City” approach was initially developed and applied in the Hammarby Sjöstad project in Sweden and widely spread afterwards. The Hammarby Sjöstad project covers an area of ​​1.6 square kilometers and has a construction period of 25 years. At the beginning of the project, the planning authority convened relevant stakeholders and professionals to jointly analyse the challenges, identifying and solving complex problems early on. Compared to other similar projects at the same time, its environmental impact was reduced by nearly 50%, achieving the initial environmental goals.

Figure 1. Symbio City Model

Source: SymbioCity (https://symbiocity.org/resources/)

In comparison, industrial parks in China are characterised by large scales, long construction periods, high investment, and numerous uncontrollable factors. Additionally, many long-term “targets” are often established during the planning stage, which makes it challenging to achieve the ultimate low-carbon goals. Despite that European countries also set low-carbon targets, industrial park in those regions are typically smaller in scale and accompanied by detailed and comprehensive data, facilitating the achievement of these targets. Therefore, we should set “small goals” aligned with the overall direction, allocate resources to achieve them based on the current situation, and ultimately promote the realisation of low-carbon goals. Previously, we designed an ecological assessment form to refine the overall objectives into specific items, which assisted stakeholders in recognising hidden environmental and low-carbon issues at an early stage, increased awareness among all parties and fostered collaboration on identifying appropriate solutions.

Furthermore, the implementation of low-carbon goals also requires tailored and forward-thinking, identification and decision-making based on local conditions. Taking Tianjin Eco-City as an example, despite its detailed early planning and drawing from advanced experiences in Singapore and Europe, the lack of consideration on local needs has led to public skepticism about its low-carbon goals. For instance, it creates contradictions by advocating for green travel before the completion of infrastructure construction, especially considering its long distance from the city center and thus high demand for private cars. Similarly, applying a vacuum waste collection system, designed for low-density communities, in high-density urban areas in China results in increased maintenance costs and new operational challenges. If these problems were identified and addressed early on and a shift from “achieving at one go” to a ” step-by-step” approach was taken, it would have greatly improved project efficiency and promoted the achievement of low-carbon goals.


Carbon management can utilise digital tools for calculations, and feed back the results into the design process, thereby integrating low-carbon concepts into the initial stages of projects. This not only enhances carbon reduction benefits but also moderately reduces investment costs.

3. What are the key and difficulties of “carbon management”? How is it related to digitisation? Does the implementation of carbon management mainly rely on the government or the market?

The key to “carbon management” lies in changing perceptions. Currently, the focus of carbon management is primarily on “carbon footprint” and “carbon trading,” which are measurements taken at later stages. However, early-stage management is actually more crucial. Back-end carbon management focuses on calculating and analysing the causes of carbon emissions after they occur, making it difficult to effectively reduce emissions. On the other hand, early-stage carbon management in projects involves forecasting and strategising the stages and measures conducive to emission reduction, thereby facilitating the implementation and optimisation of reduction outcomes.

Digital tools are effective aids in carbon management. For example, in the Sino-European (Taicang) Green Digital Innovation Cooperation Zone, we classified buildings and established different parameters according to energy solutions. Through digital simulation, we estimated embodied and operational carbon emissions in the future and integrated the findings into the design process to propose refined solutions. This process also involved collaboration among experts from various fields such as energy, construction, planning, and transportation, contributing to low-carbon solutions.

Figure 2. Dr. Miao Xu delivered a keynote speech at the Green Sustainable Development Conference

Source: Provided by Dr. Miao Xu

The implementation of carbon management often relies on policies, public consensus, and economic benefits. In Greater London, UK, the government primarily employs mandatory policies to drive carbon reduction efforts, influencing developer behavior by making planning permissions contingent on meeting zero-carbon/low-carbon criteria. In Sweden, sustainable development has attained a societal consensus, compelling enterprises to transit towards green sectors for continued prosperity. Furthermore, the improvement of environmental comfort through low-carbon construction has spurred increases in property values, motivating developers to increasingly engage in low-carbon development practices, thereby establishing a positive feedback loop.

It is worth noting that awareness of energy crises and high electricity costs are also key drivers of low-carbon development. Having faced economic downturns resulting from past oil crises, Sweden mobilised national efforts towards sustainable development, which helped position itself as a global leader in low-carbon construction and emission reduction strategies. In Europe,  generally electricity costs are relatively high, which fosters a strong awareness of environmental conservation among the populace. Conversely, China has relatively low electricity costs, resulting in environmental conservation awareness among residents primarily staying at a conceptual level, lacking the inherent drive for low-carbon development.


4. From the perspective of urban planners, what are the key of the low-carbon economy? How do you evaluate the market demand changes and influencing factors of low-carbon transformation over the past decades of practices? What are the main costs and benefits of low-carbon construction?

The circular economy will be a crucial aspect of future transitions toward a low-carbon economy. Against the backdrop of global industrial transfer, China faces competition from countries with low labor costs, making the development of a circular economy strategic for industrial upgrading. Considering new city and industrial park construction from the perspective of the circular economy not only promotes the research and production of new technologies but also yields greater economic benefits across the entire industrial chain, thereby avoiding the risk of obsolescence.

Under policy guidance, the domestic market demand for low-carbon solutions has been emerging. National policies have started to offer subsidies and incentives for construction and manufacturing that adhere to green standards. Consequently, many clients are demanding higher standards for low-carbon construction. Some industrial parks and factories are beginning to emphasise and promote green, emission-free production to gain greater market recognition. These market demands will feed back into urban planning and design, promoting the overall transition of cities towards a green and low-carbon direction.

The high costs of low-carbon construction primarily stem from delayed actions. Integrating low-carbon considerations early on not only enhances carbon reduction benefits but also reduces costs. For instance, if low-carbon considerations are only introduced during the construction phase, the costs of supplementary equipment and purchases will significantly increase. However, embracing low-carbon principles from the outset can reduce future usage and maintenance costs. For example, designing building components that can be locally adjusted and using building materials with adaptable thermal insulation properties based on climate differences can reduce the need for air conditioning systems after completion, thus achieving emission reduction and carbon reduction.

However, reducing costs through design is not absolute and it requires comprehensive consideration of carbon reduction goals and regional differences. Regarding embodied carbon, the earlier it starts low-carbon efforts initiatives the greater benefits it achieves, including cost reduction to a certain extent. However, costs may also increase when pursuing extreme carbon reduction goals. Therefore, thorough consideration of carbon management before project initiation is essential, which estimates the position of inflection points and the extent of carbon reduction. When addressing operational carbon emissions, it is essential to establish on measures in the context of the energy profile of cities and regions, rather than focusing solely on individual projects. For example, there are significant differences in carbon emissions and calculation methods between electricity generated by coal-fired power plants and pure green electricity.

Historically, the pursuit of efficiency has made it difficult for designers to engage in lower-carbon, smarter, and more comprehensive thinking. In the future, there should be a balance between low-carbon design and low-carbon technology. Adequate time should be allocated for refining low-carbon solutions at the design level, emphasising “software” deployment, while further research and innovation should be conducted at the technological level, emphasising  “hardware” support. Although low-carbon design solutions may require more upfront time and effort, proactive consideration is still a lower-cost, more efficient, and more beneficial choice compared to later “remediation”.


It is imperative to formulate low-carbon development strategies tailored to local developmental characteristics and stages. Embracing operational low-carbon practices and methodologies is essential, persistently driving pathways for low-carbon implementation. Furthermore, sustained efforts in education and public awareness campaigns are indispensable  for mobilise wide public engagement and the realisation of low-carbon ideas.

5. How can low-carbon demonstration projects be promoted to the wider society? What are the main challenges encountered in China? What efforts can urban planners make in this regard?

Low-carbon projects can be integrated with urban regeneration, incorporating low-carbon concepts and technologies into inventory development which becomes a major trend for urban development. In Europe, the concept of ecological cities has been integrated into urban regeneration projects. Old building materials are partially retained, reducing embodied carbon emissions while preserving historical memory. In China, there is a growing advocacy for organic regeneration, with many projects unintentionally embracing low-carbon principles. For instance, the Beijing 798 Art Center project, despite its relatively high energy consumption and low comfort level, as well as limited efforts in reducing operational carbon emissions, has reduced embodied carbon emissions through the preservation of building materials.

However, it requires government policy support to incentivise developers’ participation and expand the influence of low-carbon demonstration projects by integrating low-carbon principles into urban regeneration projects. Challenges such as insufficient motivation persist, particularly among developers, and there are significant variations among provinces and cities in China. At the national level, given the huge local variations, it is not feasible to establish a unified, universally applicable mechanism and system for low-carbon practices. Hence, local governments need to contemplate and promote low-carbon construction based on distinct local realities.

For urban planners, it is crucial to assist decision-makers in implementing ideas through collaborative planning. Building upon methodological and theoretical foundations, planners should provide practical low-carbon strategies, objectives, and actions  tailored to the specific needs of each project. The numerous challenges faced by the industry at present may also present new opportunities including that for us to recognise that, beyond efficiency, there is a need to prioritise long-term, low-carbon and intelligent development.


6. How does low-carbon urban development impact residents’ quality of life? How can we mobilise the entire population to actively participate in low-carbon construction?

Low-carbon cities can offer residents a higher quality of life. Taking Suzhou Industrial Park as an example, it adopts the concept of integrating industry with urban development. On one hand, it integrates universities, commercial areas, and industrial parks, promoting industrial upgrading and economic development. On the other hand, it also provides residents with comprehensive supporting facilities and public spaces, effectively improving the comfort of living. Though, residents have not fully recognised the role of low-carbon actions and the understanding of how low-carbon can improve quality of life remains vague, leading to insufficient enthusiasm among them for engaging in low-carbon initiatives.

Figure 3. Suzhou Industrial Park

Source: Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University

To mobilise the while public for low-carbon initiatives, continuous and multi-level promotion and education are necessary. Firstly, residents can be informed about the environmental and economic benefits of actions such as waste sorting through training sessions, lectures, and other means. Secondly, low-carbon concepts should be introduced during childhood education, as children can influence changes in parental behavior, thereby gradually driving social transformation. For instance, in Sweden, children are taught waste sorting in kindergarten, and they often encourage their parents to do the same at home, thus fostering low-carbon behavioral habits at the societal level. Lastly, planners and designers should also make efforts to incorporate green and low-carbon education into practical projects. Only when residents can truly experience the improvement in their quality of life through low-carbon planning and design, transportation, and social interactions, will societal recognition and pursuit of low-carbon initiatives continue to rise. Therefore, by repeatedly emphasising the impact of low-carbon and encouraging more individuals to participate, society can move towards a positive development path of green and low-carbon initiatives.