Environmental protection has been on the minds of young Chinese for decades. When I introduced my company’s environmental youth education program in China in 2003, university students from bachelor freshmen to master’s students were active in all types of on-campus programs, “Green Clubs” and other activities to disseminate knowledge and create awareness for waste water or waste collection. They started recycling programs on campus or developed technology ideas for rain water recycling in apartment blocks. Typically, freshmen and sophomores were the most active, while students in higher years became less engaged the closer, they got to exams and graduation due to the increased pressure to study.
At the same time, all around China’s cities the government established Environmental Youth Education Centers staffed by employees from the Ministry of Education and the Environmental Protection Agencies with the aim to increase awareness among China’s youth for environmental protection. They conducted programs in communities and in schools. However, the most active students came from the more affluent emerging middle class and from urban centers as they faced less economic pressure and had supportive homes. Students from poorer regions and less affluent households tended to be more focused on studying with the aim to find better jobs and create the material wealth their parents’ generation was lacking. The rural-urban, affluent vs. economically strained divide still exists, but the various manifestations of climate change – flooding, extreme heat, torrential rains, draughts, typhoons etc. – have swept the reality of climate change also into the minds of the less privileged youth.
The following presents a snapshot of how China’s youth today perceive climate change and the challenges they and the country are facing based on interviews with young friends from different social levels and different corners of China.
Climate change is here and real and important
Climate change has become visible and tangible! Apart from being a hot topic on media headlines all around the world and all the published research on how years of carbon emissions accumulation led to global warming and pose a danger to planet Earth’ climate, the extreme weather events of recent years illustrate clearly the way climate change is affecting the daily lives of ordinary Chinese citizens.
Whether the extreme weather phenomena manifest themselves as extended draughts threatening production of staple foods such as grain, melting polar caps leading to rising sea levels, ever ferocious typhoons slamming the coast or torrential rains leading to flooded cities and lost lives, the effects of climate change have reached the doorsteps of human civilization. The warming effects of climate change are no longer speculation for people but have started to intrude into people’s daily live and experiences. While melting polar caps and rising sea levels that threaten the disappearance of some island or the extinction of the polar bear may remain abstract for people, the direct, tangible economic impact and loss of human life to extreme weather phenomena and events all across China is visible for all. And since it is today well documented that the catastrophic events are the result of years of massive carbon emissions caused by human action, people are starting to realize that the issue needs addressing, that if they don’t do something about climate change, life on Earth will face even worse challenges in the future.
China’s youth rise to the challenge
While 20 years ago, it may have been mainly the university educated middle-class youth who engaged in environmental activity. Now, more than in past generations, young Chinese from different income levels are prepared to seek a more sustainable lifestyle, consuming healthier and Eco-label products, chose new energy vehicles, use shared mobility or public transport. In their daily life, they embrace waste separation and reject single-use goods, they shut off lights when leaving a room, reducing the use of air conditioning, deploy energy saving light bulbs. Many of these youth are using social media platforms that promote green consumption such as the Ant Forest App which plants a tree for the right consumption. Students in Chinese cities have wholeheartedly embraced the shared bike economy, which was conceived as a transport concept enabling students to navigate long campus transfer between classrooms and enabled by digital technology. Unlike their parents they prefer bikes and mass rail transport to save time, rather than sitting in traffic jams.
Today, young Chinese possess strong environmental awareness and are organizing educational events in small groups, many on campus, in schools, or in their communities to engage with middle and primary school kids (e.g., disseminating knowledge on waste separation, climate change, energy saving etc). Larger regional or nation-wide operating organizations use digital media to disseminate knowledge on low-carbon lifestyles, carbon emission reduction tools, through online videos on Weibo, WeChat and other online tools. Given China’s limited opportunities for large-scale rallies and the expectation of society that students study, mass activities like Fridays for Future are not an option. But smaller-scale campus, school or community-based voluntary education and awareness events are.
Making the fight against climate change personal
Young Chinese are willing to engage personally and make individual commitments in three areas; awareness building, information sharing and research. They are striving to learn more about global warming, the impact of carbon emission, the meaning of carbon neutrality, and the contribution that actions like energy saving and emission reduction initiatives can make. Many of them are committing to good every day practices like using less water, cultivating energy saving habits such as reducing the use of air conditioning at home, avoiding waste – especially plastic waste – or disposing of it properly, taking public transport.
China’s youth engage in information sharing and promotion of environmental awareness to increase other people’s awareness about the importance of protecting nature and the life supporting system. They share good practices to try and influence family and friends or join public welfare initiatives that aim to spread knowledge on climate change and create awareness for each individual’s responsibility when dealing with global warming.
On a university level, students want to contribute through their research and study to climate relevant programs such as the Carbon Exchange Mechanism or the broader use of renewable energy sources such roof solar panels. On the non-technical side, research into technology ethics or the responsibility of technology to bring about innovation to address climate change have been mentioned as some fields that youth would like to work in.
Acknowledging the complexities in climate change mitigation China’s efforts get mixed marks
Youth opinions about what their government is doing to combat climate change range from “China is doing quite well, it’s not perfect, but at least they are trying” to “not nearly enough” or “not very good”. While some opinions suggest that the government is doing well in thoroughly analyzing the issue and then proposing tailored mitigation measures, which they are willing to trial and adjust when needed, others are concerned that in general country governments around the world are only interested in the economy and military power.
On the positive side may youth feel that China’s government has done well in improving air quality and increasing forest coverage to mitigate desertification. Progress has also been made in reducing harmful emissions from mining activity or industry. The country is seen to have acted responsibly by openly addressing climate change and by making the necessary administrative institutional adjustments such as instituting the National Council on Climate Change Mitigation as well as issuing a series of policies addressing climate change in the context of sustainable economic development.
Yet, there is some doubt among youth whether the current measures have enough impact and are targeted enough to adequately address climate change. In general, young people feel that China could do more to support and fund scientific research that address shortcomings in existing carbon reducing technology, such as in the design and manufacturing process of new energy vehicles.
This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard China Country Manager Annette Wiedenbach