Finding his calling - Wang Shi on the long road to carbon neutrality

The former Vanke boss tells Jiemian News what needs to be done for us to have a real chance of arresting global warming.

Photo by Sun Xiaoxu

Photo by Sun Xiaoxu

By ZHENG Cuiying


When China’s climate envoy XIE Zhenhua bumped into WANG Shi at a hotel lobby in Copenhagen during the 15th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 15), the statesman was pleasantly surprised to meet a Chinese entrepreneur already so keen on climate issues. That was in 2009. Greta Thunberg had just started elementary school. Paris was six years away. “China needs voices like this,” Xie said.

Eight years later, Wang gave up his post as chairman of Vanke, the property developer where he had worked for thirty years. In 2020, when China pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, Wang changed his mind about real estate and is now building carbon-neutral communities, starting with his own house and Vanke headquarters. When the project is completed next year, everything will be controlled by smart operating systems, run on renewable energy and generate minimum waste through recycling and composting.

This is not his only climate-change project. Last year, Wang and his friends launched a SPAC to take public startups that make emission-cutting products, Destone Acquisition Corp filed for an IPO in Hong Kong this April.

While doing all this, Wang, the chairman of the Asian Rowing Federation’s own rowing team has traveled to 13 countries to promote “zero pollution, zero waste, zero carbon.” Their next destination is Egypt, for this year’s COP27.

HE Li, a co-founder of Jiemian News, recently sat down with Wang Shi. They talked about Wang’s latest startups, fighting climate change as a Chinese business leader, and growing old.

The following interview has been trimmed and edited.

Jiemian News: The seriousness of climate change is indisputable, but there’s also the energy crisis and recession to worry about. How do you suggest we balance development with cutting emissions?

Wang: At COP15 in 2009, we discussed what to do after 2012 when the Kyoto Protocol ended. China was already the second largest emitter, but our per-capita emission was only a seventh of America’s. China is reluctant to adhere to the same standards as developed countries. The west has been belching CO2 for 200 years. We had only been emitting for about 30. But then we realized that development and emission-cutting should go hand in hand.

I vividly remember that China made a pledge in Copenhagen that we would cut our carbon intensity by 45 percent by 2020. Carbon intensity, essentially, is emission per unit of GDP. China was able to cut its carbon intensity by 48.4 percent between 2009 and 2020, more than we promised.

Since Copenhagen, we have not budged in our commitment. Even America withdrew from the Paris Agreement during Trump’s presidency and rejoined later. In 2020, we pledged to a carbon peak by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060.

The energy crisis is a setback, but even without it, we’d be going two steps forward and one step back. It took a herculean effort to keep the 1.5-celsius goal alive at last year’s COP 26. It’s a result of struggle and reconciliation between the rich and the poor, the north and the south, and the haves and have-nots.

Jiemian News: You feel very strongly about environmental issues. Is it because of your love for the outdoors? Or is it more about your experience in business?

Wang: I do love the outdoors. I love adventures. I’ve climbed mountains and been to the North and South Poles.

Equally importantly, as an entrepreneur, I believe in longtermism. When I saw the EU’s emission measures, I realized that we would have to do the same thing one day. It would be too painful to change when everything is big and mature, so I insisted on developing energy-efficient prefabricated homes from very early on.

We started Vanke Architecture Research Center in 1999. The first prototypes came out in 2005 and our first prefabricated homes went on sale in 2007, the year the government issued standards for green buildings. By the time I retired in 2017, 30 percent of China’s highest-grade green buildings were built by Vanke, but that was still only 3 percent of all houses on the market.

Jiemian News: You have been trying to create “carbon-neutral communities,” starting with your own home and headquarters. How are they different from existing green buildings?

Wang: In 2020, when China announced its goal for carbon neutrality by 2060, I knew I’d found my calling. Vanke has always been one of the greenest developers out there in China – we were top three by volume in 2020 and only No 21 in emissions. Being carbon neutral is more complicated than simply being green.

A carbon-neutral community needs its own mini-grid that runs on renewables such as solar and wind. This mini-grid is then connected to the national grid. It buys electricity during off-peak hours and feeds the surplus back when power demand is high. Additionally, it buys credits to offset emissions generated from daily lives and needs a system to track and manage all these ins and outs.

Generally speaking, lower floor areas allow more solar panels and increase the renewable percentage. In Europe hardly any green buildings, achieved more than 60 percent renewables - 85 percent, which we’ve already achieved in real projects, is unheard of.

Jiemian News: The carbon market involves a lot of trading, investment, and financial innovation. How does that help, or hinder, your projects?

Wang: I was out of the real estate business for a while before I went back in 2020 to build carbon-neutral communities. I started the Foundation for Rural Development and Shenzhen Mammoth Foundation, which focuses on biotechnology. Another pet project is Deep Dive to promote water sports.

During the pandemic, I donated all the money at my disposal to the Vanke School of Public Health at Tsinghua University, so I needed to raise funds. Green finance was on the rise, so everyone from the World Bank to China’s state-owned banks has been supportive.

When we talk about green finance, everyone thinks of EVs and renewable energies. Emission-cutting products, such as carbon-neutral communities, were a novel idea until recently and still don’t appeal to investors all that much. I want to take the lead to in bringing together rising technologies and helping them raise money. The market is warming up to these ideas. Some companies are even going public. We have accelerated this change.

Jiemian News: Other than EVs and renewables, what are some emission-cutting ideas that you think are promising but novel to the public?

Wang: One example is bamboo. In the past ten years, China has led the world in reforestation, and a lot of them are bamboo forests. Bamboo grows fast. It reduces soil erosion. Bamboo products create income for rural families, and bamboo forests are great carbon sinks.

The problem is that the absorbed CO2 goes back into the atmosphere when bamboo is burned. One of our projects is to develop bamboo products to lock in carbon. They make strong but extremely lightweight construction material, for example, or can be part of wind turbines. Such products last for decades and the carbon offsets generated are completely traceable and tradable. China started trading carbon just last year. The market has great potential.

Jiemian News: How do we educate and incentivize individuals to see beyond themselves? Not all cities have succeeded in their recycling efforts, for example, despite the problem being right there, literally on people’s doorsteps.

Wang: I call my project a carbon-neutral community, which consists of buildings plus people. Human behavior is essential to achieve carbon neutrality but also difficult to change.

The Vanke Foundation started promoting recycling in our own developments in 2000, much earlier than most government programs. Our residents were unmotivated at first. The plastics and paper all got tossed into the same garbage trucks anyway, so what’s the point of taking pains to separate them in the first place? The cities wouldn’t start a different garbage collection program for recycling neighborhoods.

But I insisted we do it, regardless of what the city does to our sorted garbage. We could sell the plastics and paper to subsidize property management, at least. More importantly, it would be a great education for the public. The government would actually start recycling sooner if more people recycled at home.

It proved to be very effective to mobilize children. We told daycare centers to ask kids to bring in used batteries and give them a small award for that. Soon their parents would all know not to mix batteries with everything else.

I’ve been paying attention to how different countries dispose of their garbage. In Northern Europe, people put organic waste in a designated bin, which is effective but costly. In Japan, there is a small device in the kitchen pipe that shreds food waste into tiny pieces. But Chinese kitchens probably would need some huge pipes given our love for food.

Once someone told me about Bengaluru, India, where organic waste doesn’t leave the building. Essentially what they do is composting, and the particular method comes from China. It was an epiphany moment. There doesn’t have to be high-tech. We can marry modern management with traditional methods and create a recycling model that works for us.

Jiemian News: A scholar once said life is about our relationships with nature, with other human beings, and with ourselves. How do you deal with these relationships? How does your attitude affect your thoughts on preserving the biodiversity and cultural diversity on Planet Earth?

Wang: I can only speak for myself. As a naturalist, I believe humans must be humble in front of nature. The average lifespan of a species is seven million years. We have been around for about four, so probably right in the middle, and we already think we are masters of the universe. But in fact, we are just one small link in a huge mechanism that we can’t survive without.

Since the pandemic, the richest people have multiplied their wealth while probably the remaining 99 percent saw their assets shrink. Equality is essential to our culture, but inequality is getting worse around the world. I have been donating money because I want my money to make a bigger impact. I started my carbon-neutral projects to make an impact as well.

When I was young, I yearned to be as old as my parents. When I was 50, a TV station invited me to a program for old people. I said what? They said you would represent the middle-aged group. There would be the young, the old, and you exchange views. I said okay.

I’m 72 years old now. I think old people should still strive to create value instead of simply trying to elongate their lives. Someone asked me if I were to choose between a big pot of money or becoming ten years younger, what I would choose. I said, to his surprise, that I want money. It's not about money, but I don’t want to experience again what I’ve already been through. I have never experienced the present, which is my old years. Life is a natural process of blooming and fading. I leave my mark. And that’s what I want.