China Spawns Homegrown Climate Activists Who Hurry to ‘Get Involved’

Chinese climate activistsBEIJING — Growing up in a family of bankers, Wang Tianju thought he would follow in his family’s footsteps and work in the finance sector, until he watched a movie in 2013.

It was a documentary called “Chasing Ice,” about the efforts of natural photographer James Balog and his team to publicize the effects of global warming. Sitting in a coffee shop in Beijing on a recent day, Wang told ClimateWire about a scene that changed his career planning.

“When ice the size of four football fields fell into the sea, the whole cinema was silent,” Wang recalls. “I was thinking to myself, how can I be so selfish, just thinking about making money? If we don’t do something, those things will be all gone.”

So when Wang graduated from the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom last year, he returned to his homeland, China, and joined a local environmental organization. Now, Wang is a program officer at the Climate and Finance Policy Center of the Greenovation Hub in Beijing. His recent research project, cooperating with Chinese policymakers and financial institutes, aims to find the right incentives to help China cap coal consumption.

Wang is one of many Chinese who are devoting their time and talent to a fight against climate change. Although there is no reliable data available, a widely accepted conclusion is that the number of climate activists in China has been growing sharply in recent years.

“The trend is very obvious, particularly in the last two years,” said Yu Qingchan, program coordinator of climate change at the Beijing-based Global Environmental Institute, one of the pioneers in the nation.

“No matter if you look at mitigation actions or global climate negotiations, you can see more and more Chinese get involved,” Yu said, adding that back in 2008, very few nongovernmental organizations in China paid attention to climate change.

How enthusiasm spun out of stalled talks

When asked what brought such change, Yu’s answer is short — “The Copenhagen Summit,” referring to the United Nations climate change conference in Denmark in 2009.

Although the conference was largely considered a failure on the international level because it did not generate a binding emissions reduction target as expected, Yu said it did generate enough pressure for China to consider cutting carbon dioxide emissions.

“Attention on climate change has mounted here in China since the Copenhagen Summit,” Yu said. “Dealing with pressure from global climate negotiations was the No. 1 motivation at the beginning, but now, there is also a rising domestic desire.”

As Yu explained, China’s economic growth has long been derived from a staggering expansion of heavy industry that requires colossal inputs of energy, mostly coal. While the country’s coal reserve is the third largest in the world after the United States and Russia, China has become a net importer of the resource since 2009, due to its growing appetite for energy.

Yu said Chinese policymakers found it difficult to continue fueling the country’s economy with coal. Worsening air pollution and the destruction of ecosystems have also weighed in their decision of consuming less coal. The result: China has pledged to improve its energy efficiency and increase the supply of renewable energy.

Because coal is a carbon-intensive source, limiting its use is expected to help lower China’s carbon emissions 40 to 45 percent by 2020 compared with 2005 levels, in terms of each unit of economic output.

Yu’s organization has been advising Chinese authorities on how to achieve that goal, with the latest efforts focused on southwestern China’s Chongqing City. By providing an assessment report of the city’s existing emissions reduction practices, Yu said her organization has helped the municipal government design its future policy more effectively.

Solar goes up; lights go off

Some Chinese environmental organizations have carried out their own emissions reduction projects. Friends of Nature, for one, last year helped 30 households in Beijing install rooftop solar panels and adopt energy-efficient technologies. It was part of a move to develop a replicable model for other Chinese families to save energy.

Others have tapped into an ambition to generate China’s new climate leaders. For instance, the China Youth Climate Action Network, the country’s first nonprofit group for youth action in the field of climate change, has been sending student representatives to attend the U.N. climate talks since 2009. It also has been hosting workshops across the country for six years now.

Su Zhi, who is in charge of communications at the China Youth Climate Action Network’s Beijing office, said those workshops attracted more than 1,200 Chinese students, with at least one-fifth of those students choosing to work on climate-related sectors after graduation. According to Su, those students previously knew little about climate change.

Some students have brought the climate change message into Chinese schools. In 2012, after learning how to calculate carbon dioxide emissions caused by lighting, students of Beijing Forestry University went straight to meet the principal of the university.

“The university has a landmark facility which had all the lights on 24 hours a day,” Su said. “The university principal thought this was not a big deal, but the students showed him their calculation. Now, some lights are switched off in the facility after 9 o’clock in the evening.”

But not all the universities welcome such activity. When the China Youth Climate Action Network launched a campaign earlier this year to help Chinese students save energy and reduce emissions, students from more than 100 universities applied to participate, but only one-third of them managed to continue.

“The management of some universities said, as a student, your priority is to study. Why do you need to spend time on other things?” Su recalled. Because energy usage data is essential for calculating carbon emissions, Su said if the university management refuses to provide the data, students there can’t take action.

Idealism, low pay, high turnover

Lack of awareness on the importance of climate change hampers the work of Chinese climate activists in many ways. “It is pretty challenging for us to raise funds,” Su said. In 2009, the challenge of finding sponsors forced staff at his organization to work without a salary for months.

And because working in nongovernmental organizations is often considered a low-paid job, many environmental groups in China suffer from the pain of losing talented people, said Li Shuo, climate and energy campaigner of Greenpeace China.

Yu of the Global Environmental Institute said the high turnover does pose a problem for Chinese environmental organizations. But she said it doesn’t ruin China’s efforts to combat climate change because many talented advocates still contribute, even though they are no longer with organizations.

That was the story of Sun Xiaoming, a 29-year-old Chinese woman living in Beijing. Five years ago, Sun was one of the student representatives to the U.N. climate change conference in Copenhagen.

“The Copenhagen Summit and other events I experienced made me really want to do something,” Sun said. “Because I saw how difficult fighting climate change is and I wanted to help.”

Sun joined the Beijing office of the Yangtze Delta Ecology Society after her graduation in 2011, doing research on China’s environmental policy. She also established an educational program to raise awareness on climate change among Chinese youth.

But when her office was closed late last year due to a fund shortage, Sun decided to switch to a company rather than continuing her path in environmental organizations.

“Working with environmental organizations is just one way to help [fight climate change]; there are many other ways,” Sun said. Right now, she is working with urban planners to improve the sustainability of Chinese cities.

“If you have this deep in your heart, no matter what you do, it always affects your doing,” Sun said.

Photo courtesy of Flickr

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