bottom energy
Image: Andy Potts

IN ORDER TO ensure that Beijing’s skies are clear for the 2008 Olympics this August, China’s central government will resort to radical acts. Cars with even- and odd-numbered license plates might have to drive on alternate days to reduce tailpipe exhaust. Coal-fired factories will have to cut production.

That may prevent the world’s fastest runners from choking on particulate matter, but once the medals have been conferred, Beijing’s air will return to its usual state: a haze of sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide and ozone, among other pollutants.

China’s industrialization has proceeded at such a ferocious pace that the country fires up an average of one new coal power plant per week. By some estimates, China has already surpassed the United States as the world’s biggest emitter of CO2.

Which is why employees of a handful of Portland-based architecture firms regularly book passage to cities like Shanghai and Beijing. From here, they fan out across the country to sell developers and government officials on a very Portland idea: that one solution to China’s seemingly intractable environmental woes is to construct green buildings that use far less energy.

“If China doesn’t get it right, the whole world will pay,” says Greg Acker, director of sustainability for Sienna Architecture. And what better city to help prevent that than green-obsessed Portland? After all, our metro area has the highest number of LEED-certified buildings in the United States; many of our architecture and engineering firms claim expertise in green design; and the city is perched strategically on the edge of the West Coast, which puts it only an ocean away from a market of 1.3 billion people. In fact, given the scope of China’s air pollution problems, one might assume that Portland’s green businesses would already be raking in some serious yuan overseas.

But constructing skyscrapers that are “good” for the environment is still a novel concept in China, where shaving costs from the bottom line almost always trumps environmental concerns. “The Chinese aren’t used to paying for green building and green design services,” says Karen Goddin, a manager at the Oregon Economic and Community Development Department, which helps Oregon companies get a foothold abroad. “They want to address the problem, but they also want to keep the economy humming along.”

That reality puts our architecture firms in a quandary: Before they can develop energy-efficient buildings in China, there must be a demand for them.

And developing that demand, it turns out, is a far tougher business, since decisions about how—and how fast—China constructs its cities remain in the hands of the central government. “It’s top-down policy making,” says Han Ling Yang, sustainable program manager for the Portland-based China-U.S. Center for Sustainable Development. “To make a change, the government must first promote the concept.” Hoping to green the hearts of Chinese bureaucrats, the nonprofit has brought 482 government officials to Portland to show them what abstract concepts like smart growth look like in the real world: They’ve strolled through the Pearl, hiked through our parks and slid through the city on the MAX.

Some predict that the Olympics, by thrusting China—modern skyscrapers, polluted skies and all—into the global spotlight, will force it to regulate emissions. Should the red government eventually acquire a greenish cast, Bill Nesmith, an adviser to the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of State Energy Officials, is making sure that Oregon companies are ready to assist them. This month, he’s hoping to kick-start an energy center in Shenzhen, modeled after the one he created for Shanghai (which in turn was modeled after one in Tualatin). The showroomlike center features real-world vignettes, like bathrooms decked out with low-flow toilets and energy-efficient windows, all meant to show the Chinese that clean living is possible.

Considering the enormity of China’s environmental troubles, such projects are practically lost in the haze. On the other hand, notes Sienna’s Acker, things happen “five times as fast in China as in the United States.” Perhaps one day, that will extend to cleaning up the environment, too.