Emergy-based indicators of regional environmental sustainability: A case study in Shanwei, Guangdong, China

Understanding which factors mainly affect the environmental sustainability of a Region is a very crucial concern for many Chinese planners and policy-makers. In this study, the emergy accounting method is applied to the production and consumption activities of the city of Shanwei, a seaside urban area in Guangdong region, China. The emergy method provides a comprehensive assessment of a system, by generating a consistent set of indicators capable to capture the dynamics of the system as a whole and its efficiency in converting resources into an economic product and welfare. At the same time, the approach is capable to provide details about a system's performance over time, its use of renewable versus nonrenewables sources, local versus imported, concentrated versus dispersed and finally labor intensive versus fuel intensive processes. The main local renewable and nonrenewable emergy flows supporting the investigated area were included in the accounting, together with the flows of imported energy, goods, machinery, labor and services. Coal plays a crucial role for electricity generation, industrial uses, but also gasoline and diesel for transport affect the overall sustainability to a non-negligible extent. An Emergy Sustainability Indicator (ESI) of the local economic and social system is calculated and compared with the average value of the Chinese economy, based on the assumption that a process or system is unsustainable if it contributes to lower the overall sustainability of the region or country. This is quantified by the requirement that always must be ESIlocal≧ESIcountry. Results confirm that the most crucial factor for this region sustainability is the use of coal as a non-renewable and imported energy source. The calculated emergy indicators translate into a set-aside buffer land demand capable to mitigate, dilute, and uptake the environmental impact of human-dominated activities. Unfortunately, such buffer land demand is much higher than the land actually available. As a result, both the ESI-based sustainability equation as well as the lack of support land make the city's production and consumption patterns unsustainable and call for different lifestyles and environmental policies.

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