Harriet Babbitt and Su Wei sign the memorandum of understanding. (Jaclyn Skurie/Medill)

WASHINGTON- Chinese development officials Wednesday joined with an environmental think tank backed by the U.S. and other governments to commit their groups to developing environmentally sustainable cities.

The members of the National Development and Reform Commission of China were in Washington as a stop along their five-city U.S. study tour.

The World Resources Institute, a think tank promoting environmental solutions to urban problems funded by governments, industry and foundations, organized the study tour as part of a $12.5 million project to create environmental sustainability in urban parts of China, Brazil and India. With complete funding from the Caterpillar Foundation, the project is expected to take five years.

In addition to Washington, the Chinese delegates will travel to New York, Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles studying environmentally sustainable development in urban areas.

Harriet Babbitt, vice chair of the WRI board, and NDRC Director General Su Wei signed a memorandum of understanding at the meeting, signifying the commitment of each of their organizations to developing livable, environmentally sustainable cities.

Wei, who is China’s chief delegate on climate change, said China is determined to implement a climate change policy through three steps: mitigation of greenhouse gases, adaptation to a national climate policy and cooperation with international corporations.

“In China we are not just talking about climate change, we are actually acting on climate change,” Wei said. “We are serious about what we are talking about, we mean what we said.”

Sustainable urban planning in China is particularly critical because of rapidly increasing populations in metropolitan areas. More than a billon people will live in Chinese cities by 2030, and about 400 million of them will be new urban residents, according to Clay Lane of WRI’s Sustainable Cities Initiative.

“How Chinese cities are designed will have enormous influence on the lifestyle choices, the mobility habits, the consumption habits and the energy use of not just those new residents but of all billion or so Chinese urban residents,” Lane said.

Steve Moddemeyer, the principal for sustainable development at Cities of the Future, said in an interview that  WRI’s project is a positive step towards sustainable cities worldwide. Cities of the Future, formed by the International Water Association, is a program that studies how cities are developed around the world.

“The way we build cities now, today, will be the way they are in 50 to 100 years,” Moddemeyer said. “The choices we make today are much bigger than just what is the cheapest thing to do today. Thinking thoughtfully about that is really important.”

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