Today marks the beginning of the two-day conference on urban sustainability sponsored by The Paulson Institute. Its leader, Henry Paulson, former Secretary of Treasury, kindly invited me to participate in the conference because of my role as President of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. He and his staff were also aware of the work that my Administration has been doing to make Philadelphia the greenest city in the United States and thought that others might want to hear about those efforts. So, in addition to being an audience member, I will also speak twice about Greenworks Philadelphia.
The conference started at 9 am with remarks by Zeng Peiyan, Chairman of the China Center for International Economic Exchanges and Secretary Paulson. The Secretary spoke about China’s tremendous economic growth and its need now to continue that growth in a way that is environmentally sustainable. He and his wife have been environmentally-conscious for decades (he described driving to recycling facilities with her on weekends long before there was curbside pick-up of items to be recycled) and he is a strong advocate for the sustainability movement. He also spoke about the need to teach children about environmental stewardship so that they too would become advocates—tomorrow I will attend the launch of a children’s education program designed by the Nature Conservancy and Children’s Television Workshop.
The Secretary was followed by Hal Harvey, CEO of Energy Innovation and a long-standing expert on energy and the environment. He noted that only 10% of China’s population currently owns a car, yet the cities are already choked with traffic (certainly I’ve seen that here in Beijing). He stated that China needed to design its cities so that people could walk or bike easily around them and not build them in a way that people need cars to get to work or even run simple errands. That approach will not work, he said.
Next to speak was Wang Anshun, the Acting Mayor of Beijing. He took office a few months ago when the former Mayor was promoted to a position within the Party. He is likely to become the permanent Mayor in March. When the leadership at the top changes, as it did in October when Wen Jiaboa became China’s new premier, all of the people below that position also move up or into new spots. The way to think about this is that if we did a similar thing in the United States, then in 2008 when the transition from President Bush to President Obama occurred all of the country’s governors and mayors would also change.
The Acting Mayor of Beijing spoke about Beijing’s double-digit growth in GDP over the past few years. He acknowledged that the traffic in the central city was too great and said that the solution would be to build a new area of the city that businesses would move to. In this way, pressure would be eased in Beijing’s inner ring.
I was up next. I was interviewed by Andy Serwer, managing editor of Fortune Magazine. I talked about sustainability and how it emerged as an important focus on my Administration during the 2007 campaign thanks to the work of the Next Great City coalition. When I took office, I elevated the issue by creating the first ever Mayor’s Office of Sustainability and hiring Mark Alan Hughes to run it (his successor, Katherine Gajewski has continued the tradition of excellence in that office). My team wrote the City’s first sustainability strategy, Greenworks. That plan helped focus our work around a defined set of measurable goals and specific initiatives.
I talked about the need for planning and for a strategy like Greenworks. I highlighted our efforts on recycling and how, as a result of our work, rates of recycling have increased dramatically over the past 5 years. Our partnership with Recycle Bank has given people good incentives to recycle. This, in turn, saves the City money because we have less trash that goes to landfills. Recycling also creates jobs as do other sustainability efforts such as making buildings more energy efficient.
In response to a question, I talked about the need for the U.S. federal government to invest in infrastructure like high-speed rail. My trip from Beijing to Tianjin by train showed me why we need similar transportation options in the United States. Imagine being able to travel between New York and Philadelphia in 30 minutes!
It was a fun conversation.
After the interview, I had a personal meeting with Secretary Paulson, Chairman Peiyan and Beijing Acting Mayor Anshun. Like the other meetings I have attended since I’ve been here, the seats were arranged very formally (not around a table) and the conversation was similarly formal—more like an exchange of thoughts and honorifics than there was a casual conversation. I attended the next panel and then left for a meeting with the Vice Chairman of Commercial Committee for China Air, Jia Tiesheng. Mark Gale, CEO of the Philadelphia International Airport, and Duane Bumb went to the meeting with me. We had a good conversation with the Vice Chair and I urged him to think about opening up direct flights between China and Philadelphia.
From that meeting, Duane and I went to China’s new National Performing Arts Center where we would receive a tour and meet with the leader of that organization, President Chen Ping, to thank him for his help in bringing the Philadelphia Orchestra to Beijing. Joining me there were Craig Hamilton and Cathy Barbash from the Orchestra. The NPAC building is affectionately called “the Egg” because of its shape. The building is massive, holding the Opera House, a black-box theater, ballet theater and orchestral hall. There are one or two performances nearly every night at the Center; last night, both the ballet and the opera would perform. The building is a glass orb surrounded by water on all sides—you have to enter underground, which completely confused Suzanne Biemiller and Nancy Gilboy whose taxi cab had left them off on the wrong side of the building and they walked for blocks trying to figure out how to get inside. Despite the “front door challenges,” it is a beautiful building. My meeting with President Ping was very nice and I was able to present him with a documentary about the Orchestra’s first visit to China in 1973. He seemed appreciative.
It was now 4:30 pm and no one had eaten since breakfast. So we piled back into a cab and made our way back to the hotel to grab a quick bite. Along the way, I passed Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City. There was Chairman Mao’s iconic image, the first I had seen it since the first day when we saw it on a card at a newsstand next to images of Vladimir Putin and Steven Jobs.
At 5:30, I was interviewed by a reporter with China Business News. She asked a lot of questions about the “fiscal cliff” and it amazed me how much she and others in China pay attention to U.S. politics and financial markets. The world is getting smaller.
I then attended a dinner hosted by the Paulson Institute where we heard more about the children’s education program being created by the Nature Conservancy and Children’s Television Workshop. M. Sanjayan and Sherrie Westin both spoke about the work. It will go a long way, I think, in teaching Chinese children about the importance of clean water and sustainability. It was another full and busy day in China.
I cannot believe that tomorrow will be our final one.