The process of urbanization has brought opportunities and challenges to the development of rural areas, and the proposal of the dual-carbon goal has put forward new requirements for urbanization in the new era. In the process of high concentration of population and industries in cities, how to coordinate urban and rural development and improve the utilization efficiency of energy and resources involves both industrial transformation and conceptual change. Therefore, it is necessary to understand the importance and urgent need of sustainable rural development, and to rethink the urbanization strategies that have influenced and shaped the development of China’s rural areas over the past few decades.
Over the past few decades, China has experienced rapid industrialization and urbanization. In 2010, China’s urban population accounted for more than half. It is predicted that China’s urban population will grow to 926 million in 2025, and will exceed 1 billion by 2030, when the number of large cities with a population of one million will reach 221.
However, at present, although the urbanization rate of China’s permanent population has reached about 65%, the urbanization rate of the registered population is still less than 47%. There are still huge challenges in how to make people who come to the city better stay in the city, settle down for a long time, and find employment and development with peace of mind.
中国城市人口增长趋势 (China’s urban population growth trends)
Rural areas: the other side of rapid urbanization
With the continuous expansion of the city scale and the rapid growth of the urban population, while maintaining the urbanization process, China has also experienced urban-rural inequality, impaired rights and interests of rural migrants, urban housing, environmental degradation, over-exploitation of land, and loss of farmland. A series of problems, such as increased energy consumption, have raised concerns about the sustainability of China’s urbanization process.
The impact of urbanization on rural areas is huge and far-reaching. The city and the countryside are an organic whole, closely linked to each other. With the development of modern transportation and communication technology, the connection between urban and rural areas is becoming closer. However, rapid urbanization has brought many challenges to rural areas. On the one hand, the long-term trend of urbanization not only makes the development speed of the rural areas lag behind the cities in all aspects, but also leads to a sharp decrease in the rural population, which not only affects the maintenance of rural social relations, but also endangers the inheritance and protection of rural culture. On the other hand, rural areas are increasingly dependent on cities in terms of market, technology, investment, public services, employment, etc., which also weakens the development capacity of rural areas to a certain extent.
New Urbanization Strategy and Rural Revitalization
In order to solve the above problems, on June 21, 2022, the National Development and Reform Commission of China issued the “Notice on Printing and Distributing the “14th Five-Year Plan for New Urbanization”, which followed the “National New Urbanization Plan (2014 -2020) issued in 2014” in the main guidelines.
The “Planning” regards new urbanization as a national strategy, depicts a blueprint for China’s future urban development, and summarizes and refines the problems that have arisen in the process of urbanization in the past few decades.
Traditional urbanization strategies focus more on urban areas, especially large cities, which actually widens the urban-rural gap to a certain extent.
Although the urbanization rate of China’s permanent population has reached about 65%, the urbanization rate of the registered population is still less than 47%. There are still huge challenges in how to make people who come to the city better stay in the city, settle down for a long time, and find employment and development with peace of mind.
Compared with the traditional urbanization model based on “material” aspects such as urban expansion, the new urbanization strategy is the first attempt to refine the existing urbanization model, and proposes to promote the “citizenization” of rural migrants, and to achieve sustainable urbanization continuous development.
This formulation is complementary to the rural revitalization strategy, both aimed at improving farmers’ lives, narrowing the gap between urban and rural areas, and realizing modernization, and its deep integration is of great significance to the achievement of China’s dual-carbon goals.
So far, China’s carbon neutrality efforts have focused on urban conglomerates, which tend to be big emitters. However, to truly achieve the ambitious goal of carbon neutrality, action in rural areas is necessary. More importantly, decarbonization can be an important tool for these rural areas to achieve the desired, stable and harmonious economic and social development.
The European experience of urban-rural integration
Let’s turn our attention to the European Union. Fifty percent of the EU’s rural population lives near cities, often part of larger metropolitan areas. Cities are interdependent with their surrounding rural areas, and their interests often overlap: rural areas provide cities with food, natural resources, green space, and recreational areas; while urban areas provide the surrounding countryside with basic services such as hospitals, transport networks, employment opportunities and product markets.
The EU is committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, and it places equal emphasis on strengthening urban-rural linkages rather than widening urban-rural disparities, as the EU realizes it is critical to achieving environmental goals.
In promoting the integrated development of urban and rural areas, the EU has introduced a number of measures and accumulated rich experience.
Integrating rural areas and farmers into local governance
Rural areas should be home to vibrant local communities. European experience shows that enabling rural residents to actively participate in policy-making and decision-making processes, including engaging in broad stakeholder networks and governance at all levels, is key to developing comprehensive, context-specific policy solutions and investment decisions.
For example, the Rural Pact, developed by the European Commission, defines a long-term development vision for the EU’s rural areas and aims to reorganize the governance of rural areas. The Convention identifies numerous areas of action to achieve stronger, interconnected, resilient and prosperous rural areas and communities. In developing this long-term vision, the European Commission has gathered input from a wide range of rural communities and businesses through public consultations and stakeholder-led activities, ensuring a broad vision and comprehensive action plan to help rural communities and businesses in reach its full potential for decades to come.
In addition, the French innovation adopts the “reciprocal contract” model, which improves the sustainability of rural services and the environment, as well as economic development, by allowing cities to enter into contracts with their surrounding countryside.
Promoting rural digital transformation
在此方面，为了应对农村人口减少和人口结构变化，在地方层面解决公共经费削减和公共服务集中化问题，增强小城镇与城市之间的联系，最大限度发挥农村在向低碳循环经济转型中的作用，以及推进农村数字化转型，2017年4月，欧盟委员会启动了“智慧村庄欧盟行动”（EU Action for Smart Villages），旨在基于现有优势和资产以及开发附加值的新机会来促进农村地区发展，通过数字通信技术、创新和更好地利用知识造福民众，并且强化传统和新型网络。
Further rural development depends on the interconnectedness of rural areas and with peri-urban and urban areas, and improving these linkages will allow rural communities to gain access to a wider range of services, thereby benefiting rural residents at large. In this regard, maintaining or improving public transport services, as well as deepening digital infrastructure, are essential to ensure better connectivity to rural areas.
In this regard, in order to cope with the reduction of rural population and changes in demographic structure, solve the problems of public funding reduction and public service concentration at the local level, strengthen the connection between small towns and cities, and maximize the role of rural areas in the transition to a low-carbon circular economy. In April 2017, the European Commission launched the “EU Action for Smart Villages”, which aims to promote rural development based on existing strengths and assets, as well as developing new opportunities for added value Regional development, benefiting people through digital communication technologies, innovation and better use of knowledge, and strengthening traditional and new networks.
At the member state level, Germany has launched the “Digital Villages” initiative, with pilot activities in three villages to develop digital solutions for rural services. Finland has launched the “Smart Countryside” study, which comprehensively analyzes the challenges and opportunities of digitalization of rural services in Finland, aiming to formulate pilot actions to support a series of rural service innovations. In addition, the digital agendas of several countries, including Spain, Latvia, Sweden, have taken or planned specific actions targeting rural areas and services.
Play the important role of rural areas in circular economy
As an important entity in protecting ecosystems and carbon neutral solutions, rural areas play a key role in a sustainable biological and circular economy. Protecting natural resources in rural areas, restoring rural landscapes (including cultural landscapes), developing green farming practices, and shortening supply chains will make rural areas more resilient to climate change, natural disasters, and economic crises.
Promoting the diversification of rural economic activities
Rural areas can become more prosperous by developing diversified economic activities that contribute to employment and increasing the value added of agricultural and food-related activities.
The diversification of rural economic activity should be based on local sustainable economic strategies, including making the rural industrial environment more attractive to businesses, and strengthening digital literacy in agricultural areas, which will help ensure that rural areas receive a fair and equitable share of the value generated by agriculture.
The slow city concept of coordinated development of large cities and small towns
Metropolitan areas play an important role in promoting the development of rural areas within them and nearby and are also key stakeholders. Technology, innovative ideas and financial support from urban centres can also boost economies in rural areas through environmental protection, food system integration or the development of eco-nature tourism.
The Italian city of Bologna is a good example. Starting in 2021, the new government has set out a shared vision for both urban and rural areas. Bologna has 400,000 inhabitants, and its metropolitan area has 1.2 million inhabitants. There are 12 natural parks and reserves within its jurisdiction. The local government plans to provide strong support to the surrounding mountains to make them more prosperous and resilient, and to eliminate regional inequalities.
The slow city model (Cittaslow) (www.cittaslow.org), which was born in Italy in 1999, was created and gradually developed in villages and small towns. In recent years, this model has become more and more attractive to large cities.
The Slow City movement promotes the concept of slow food to local communities and towns, and applies the concept of ecological cuisine to daily practice, aiming to improve the quality of life of the people, which has become a decisive parameter of citizens’ daily life.
The slow city concept advocates providing more space for people to walk and more green space for people to enjoy leisure and entertainment, thereby driving leisure consumption around the city, supporting and protecting local farmers and agricultural products. Construct an urban lifestyle.
The Covid-19 pandemic has prompted citizens of big cities to slow down, prompting reflections on new habits and frameworks. Citizens realize they need spaces to walk, meet and enjoy. They also realize that during this difficult time, the help of their community neighbors and friends is even more needed. People are more eager to take back their living space, and consider small “slow” city life from a new perspective: slow down the pace of urban life, make big cities scattered and smaller, return communities to “village towns”, and let people live, work, enjoy, and relax here and entertainment, thereby introducing more sustainability and a good lifestyle to urban living.
Today, the Slow City concept has expanded from Europe to China. The Changbai Mountain Ziyu Manjiangwan Ecological Town in the southeast of Fusong County, Jilin Province is the first mountain town built in accordance with the “slow city” concept in China. It is located in the Changbai Mountain Nature Reserve, which is rich in natural resources. The whole project planning is based on the principle of “slow city”, advocating a leisurely vacation and enjoying life slowly.
To create an ecologically sustainable village according to the criteria associated with traditional Italian urban planning, combining local characteristics and traditions, giving new value to the landscape environment and natural resources.
It is fully integrated with the surrounding nature. In addition, smart travel, efficient control of building lighting, and comprehensive utilization of renewable energy have been widely adopted, which not only creates considerable energy-saving benefits, promotes environmental protection, but also comprehensively reduces greenhouse gas emissions.
Energy transition in rural areas
The energy transition in rural areas is critical to achieving carbon neutrality goals. More than 130 million people in Europe live in rural areas, and their lives will also be significantly affected by the policy decisions of the European Green Deal. Carbon neutral policies can only be successfully implemented if they reflect the conditions and aspirations of rural areas.
The European Commission’s “European Refurbishment Wave” strategy aims to at least double the annual rate of energy retrofits in buildings by 2030. The renovation is to improve the quality of life for those who live and use the building, create green jobs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Europe. Crucially, the energy needs of businesses and communities in rural Europe, as well as the rural building stock, should be considered. If given enough attention, improvements in the rural building stock will help achieve the goals set by the European Green Deal, ensuring a just transition for all in Europe.
Policies promoting the replacement of polluting heating systems can help support the decarbonisation and greening of the EU’s building stock, according to a study of EU member states by the Free Initiative. At present, most of the oil and coal-fired boilers used for heating rural areas in Europe have been in operation for more than 10 years. Updating heating systems in rural areas can not only improve energy efficiency, save energy consumption and reduce emissions, but also help reduce rural residents’ energy bills. Some urban and rural residents in countries such as Germany and Ireland have begun to replace traditional oil-fired boilers for heating with new condensing liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) boilers. Rural areas in northern China are also actively implementing coal-to-electricity and coal-to-gas to improve air quality during the heating season. These initiatives are important for advancing energy transition in rural areas and achieving carbon neutrality goals.
China-EU Cooperation Outlook
In order to achieve carbon neutrality, transformation is necessary, and it touches every aspect of people’s lives. Carbon neutrality is about everyone and an opportunity for everyone. However, net-zero emissions will not be possible if rural communities are excluded from the related reforms being introduced to carbon neutrality in urban areas.
China can learn from the ideas and experiences of Europe, protect and revitalize rural areas by developing smart villages and slow cities, and promote the coordinated and integrated development of cities and villages, so as to cope with the problems encountered on the road of new urbanization and carbon neutrality. A series of major challenges.
In addition, an integrated and coordinated approach is required, including the incorporation of expertise from different sectors, and the active participation of all stakeholders, experts and industries, which will help create a sustainable economic development model with complementary advantages and mutual promotion of urban and rural areas, Contribute to the achievement of carbon neutrality goals.
China Europe Carbon Neutral Technology aims to support and substantially contribute to China’s path towards carbon neutrality in a holistic and inclusive way by gathering all the stakeholders and creating solutions for each challenge.
China Europe Carbon Neutral Technology will play an active and innovative role in providing services to conceive, shape, design and accomplish the transitions needed to achieve carbon neutrality.