World's Most Energy Efficient Building is a Smoke Screen

03/21/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

China has been moving forward quickly in regards to sustainability, especially in terms of new building construction. There has been no shortage of reporting about the new office tower in Guangzhou, China, which may be the world's most energy-efficient when completed. The 71-story Pearl River tower, designed by the New York-based architecture firm, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, is intended to be a "zero-energy" skyscraper that generates all the energy it needs to operate on its own.

In terms of green building this is a terrific story. In terms of who owns it...not so great: the tower will house China National Tobacco Corporation, a state-owned company that is the largest tobacco producer in the world, selling approximately 1.5 trillion cigarettes per year to around 350 million Chinese citizens, and a number of additional tenants.

On one hand it's very progressive for a company to consider the environment and workplace health when putting up its office building or any other installation. But it's another thing when that company's revenues derive from one of the biggest optional health risks in the world.

This is a real yin and yang dilemma. As commendable as it is that China is moving in this direction, the tower's short-term environmental gains will be far outpaced by the company's damage to air quality and health. Hopefully China National Tobacco will use some of its huge revenues to build zero-energy hospitals and cancer care centers.

Jonathan A. Schein is President & CEO of ScheinMedia and publisher of