Recently cities around the world celebrated Earth Hour, a symbolic event where businesses and landmark buildings switched off their lights to raise awareness of the need to conserve electricity and mitigate the effects of climate change. Thousands of well-meaning environmentalists literally fell over themselves to join in this global festival of darkness.

It doesn’t matter that Earth Hour is almost universally ignored as a fatuous exercise in virtue-signalling – the act of grandstanding to widely announce one’s virtue to the world. This didn’t stop several commentators using the event to point out that China had only joined in half-heartedly, switching off the lights in the Birds Nest stadium in Beijing while most of the country carried on as normal.

This has long been the way that environmentalism has been presented. It encapsulates the ethical high ground of the West with China presented as an irresponsible environmental pariah. For Western advocates, the environmental debate focuses on restraint, limits and a fear of the future; for China, material and consumer growth is central to economic and social sustainability as a means to create a better future. For China, Earth Hour’s slogan “Consume Less” seems an insult to the many millions who have only just emerged from having nothing.

The real reason for China’s U-turn on climate change

Admittedly, there are very real environmental causes for concern in China. It is still the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world with dangerous levels of pollution and choking traffic congestion in major urban centres. For many in the West, the very notion of a voracious Chinese consumer society, of its rapid construction of new towns and cities, of manufacturing and servicing infrastructure and transport networks, is intrinsically anathema to environmental concerns.

But in the last decade or so, China has managed a miraculous turnaround. It is now the biggest player in global cleantech: the most significant turbine supplier, the largest lithium-ion investor and the biggest solar panel manufacturer – to name just a few. With such market dominance comes a certain moral authority. When a Chinese foreign minister criticises the US President for wanting to leave the Paris Climate Change Accord, it clearly signals a shift in the environmental script.

China is reinventing itself as an ecological champion. It has done this, in part, through a carefully planned urban strategy.

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The exponential growth of China’s cities since 1980 has been phenomenal, rising from 198 cities in 1978 to 658 today. Of course, many of these have been thrown up in the excitement of economic growth, but now China is having to consider what it has done right, to experiment with other ways of urbanising and, to put right many of the problems arising from such a crazy splurge of construction.

Eco-cities are the new big idea. Chinese Eco-cities are urban areas designated as having ecology and sustainability at their core.

In 2012, there were just 25 Chinese Eco-cities; four years later, China officially laid claim to 284. In other words, China claims that 42 per cent of its cities are Eco-cities. Anyone who has walked around a Chinese city lately will probably conclude that this is patent nonsense. Undoubtedly, urban quality has improved in the last decade but in general, Chinese cities are still the same vast, traffic-filled, shoddily built, uninsulated, congested – and exciting – urban sprawls that they have long been.

Clearly it helps that there is no single definition of an Eco-city. This leaves China with an unchallengeable opportunity to define them as it wants. Unsurprisingly, it has chosen to cultivate the view that China is the Eco-city capital of the world.

And you think Beijing is polluted?

What is really happening is simply that China’s urbanisation has reached the same crossroads that Western cities did more than a century ago. Places like New York and London were also heavily polluted industrial workhouses with insanitary conditions and bad air quality. They were constructed for an immediate urgent need that prioritised speed of construction over urban niceties. Built in haste, they rebuilt at leisure.

In the same way, but faster, after decades of unrestrained development, China now has the economic luxury to focus on quality over quantity – reducing air pollution, relocating industry, creating parkland, protecting wetland, upgrading its public transport network, cleaning the water supply, improving energy efficiency, modernising construction standards. These are some of the measures that can earn China self-defining Eco-city credentials.

Take the example of Meixi Lake Eco-City, Changsha in Hunan Province. This is a city for 180,000 people (the size of Providence Rhode Island). Put simply, Meixi Lake Eco-city is simply an aspiring city. It is designed to be a neat, modern, with high-tech industries, cleanish air, parks and recreation, urban efficiencies, better living standards, social and mobile connectivity with well-designed urban areas, pleasant architecture and decent transport.

Some people insist that an Eco-city is a contradiction in terms, implying that simply by having the hubris to build vast energy-guzzling metropolitan centres automatically condemns them. Nonsense. Who is to say that these new, ambitious, well-tempered Chinese cities shouldn’t have the “eco-” prefix attached?

After 50 years of sneers from the West, China is in the ecological driver’s seat. China’s environmental soft-power strategy is coming of age.

Austin Williams is associate professor at XJLU university in Suzhou and author of the forthcoming book “China’s Urban Revolution: Understanding Chinese Eco-cities”