Thursday, August 30, 2007

China's Environmental Challenges and the Next Generation of Green Leaders

This article was submitted to me by Zhang Dongli during my tenure at the Centre for Science and Environment. It was intended for publication in CSE's youth magazine, Gobar Times. However, I became impatient waiting for them to publish what I think is an excellent and inspiring article, so I decided to at least publish it here. If anyone is interested in being in touch with the author, let me know.

The world has watched in amazement in the last ten years as China has transformed its economic and social system to become the fourth-largest economy in the world. It has also become increasingly apparent, however, that this rapid growth has come at a severe price for China’s environment. Because of China’s high population and generally poor enforcement of environmental standards, pressure on natural resources and the resultant environmental problems have become acute. For example, one-third of China is affected by acid rain; 16 of the world’s twenty most polluted cities are in China; and over 300 million rural people lack access to clean drinking water. Some of the biggest threats to China’s environment, health, and future sustainable development include water pollution and scarcity, air pollution, and climate change.

China is facing a severe water crisis, with regard to both water quality and water supply. Continuous discharge of untreated sewage from major cities, as well as pollution from mining, paper-making, and other industries has taken a severe toll on China’s waterways. In 2006, 26% of the water flowing in China’s major watersheds was essentially dead, classified by the State Environmental Protection Administration as having lost all basic ecological functions. It is estimated that 660 of China’s cities are affected by serious groundwater pollution. Water supply is also a vital concern; China has 8% of the world’s fresh water but 22% of the world’s population. More than 130 cities in China, including Beijing, face severe water shortages. In order to deal with water shortages in the relatively arid north of China, China has embarked on the world’s largest water diversion project, which will take water from the Yangtze River in the south to northern China. This project involves the construction of 3 canals, totaling more than 3,000 km, and is expected to be completed around 2050 at a projected cost of more than US$60 billion. The full ecological consequences of this large-scale re-engineering of China’s major river systems remain unknown, but environmentalists doubt that it is sustainable to divert so much of the Yangtze’s water.

Air pollution is another serious problem, especially in China’s major cities. According to the World Bank, four of the world’s ten cities with the worst air pollution are in China. About 300,000 deaths each year are attributed to air pollution. Because of China’s huge coal resources, coal accounts for more than 60% of China’s primary energy supply, a much higher percentage than in developed nations like the United States. In cities like Beijing, increased automobile traffic and poor urban planning have also played a critical role in the air pollution problem. When the Chinese government ordered 800,000 cars off of the streets of Beijing to clear the air for the China-Africa summit in November 2006, a type of nitrogen oxide pollution decreased by 40%.

Finally, climate change has been recognized as an increasing threat to China’s environment. According to China’s National Climate Change Program, published by the central government in June, climate change is likely to cause a decrease in the yields of China’s main agricultural crops (corn, wheat, and rice), increased desertification, and sea level rise. Climate change will also make China’s water problems even more acute. Glacial water supplies 23% of China’s population, but it is estimated that China will lose two-thirds of its glaciers by 2050, putting at least 300 million people at risk.

Government and NGO Actions

China’s environmental crisis is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. The central government has issued dozens of regulations designed to improve energy efficiency and crack down on polluters. The government’s targets for 2010 include a 10% reduction in air pollution and a 20% reduction in energy intensity of GDP. China has set ambitious targets for the development of wind and biomass electricity generation. In addition, the government has introduced fuel taxes to discourage the purchase of inefficient vehicles and a 5% tax on wooden disposable chopsticks (which consume 25 million trees each year). A new regulation issued in May requires all companies to disclose their environmental information to the public voluntarily or by force.

There has also been a rapid increase in the number of non-governmental organizations working on environmental issues. There are more than 3,000 registered environmental NGOs in China today, a rapid increase from less than 50 only five years ago. These NGOs are gradually becoming more sophisticated and effective. For example, one of the most innovative NGOs is the Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs, founded in 2006 by Ma Jun, author of the influential book “China’s Water Crisis.” Ma Jun was inspired to become an environmental activist because of his experiences as a journalist researching the Yellow River. His Institute has created an online map of water pollution in China, and is using this information to pressure multinational companies to green their supply chains and stop purchasing from polluting factories. Chinese NGOs have also started to pay more and more attention to the problem of climate change. Although NGOs generally lack experience in dealing with climate change, they are rising to the challenge, networking with foreign NGOs and building capacity to effectively address this problem.

The Student Environmental Movement

China’s youth are the ones who will have to deal with the future consequences of today’s environmental pollution. Fortunately, the last 10-15 years have seen a rise in environmental activism among Chinese youth and the rise of a new generation of leaders who are dedicated to solving China’s environmental problems.

Unlike their counterparts in developed countries, Chinese youth often face serious barriers to environmental activism. Since the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989, the Chinese government has actively discouraged any attempts at national-level campaigns by university groups. Student groups generally receive no funding from their university, and their ability to fundraise from outside sources is also restricted. All projects must be approved by the university, and it is easy for a university administration to shut down student organizations.

Despite these challenges, there is a tight-knit and growing community of Chinese students from campuses throughout the country working on environmental issues. Nearly every university in the country has an environmental club, many of which are linked into regional and sometimes national networks. It is almost impossible to describe a “typical” club, since the large regional differences across China lead to different environmental concerns, and government control prevents students from organizing nationally. In the words of Zhang Dongli, a leader in the national College Environmental Forum, “there is more and more diversity in the students' environmental activities now. They used to be more nature-focused, just working on issues of forest preservation, endangered species protection, etc. Now they are reaching out to many aspects of the environmental movement, such as urban rivers, green architecture, public transportation, [and] organic farming.” Here we profile a sample of some of the rising student environmental leaders and their organizations.

Li Li, the College Environmental Forum

Li Li is one of the leaders of the College Environmental Forum, the main national student environmental network in China. CEF provides an online forum for college activists to share news, advice, and success stories; it also organizes an annual conference which attracts leaders from the major regional networks and university environmental organizations. This year’s forum focused on climate and energy; students presented recent projects related to issues like on-campus energy conservation, carbon audits, and wind power. Li Li, a recent college graduate and former president of the regional network Green Henan, was heavily involved in organizing this year’s conference. He has also been involved in organizing tree-planting and bird-watching activities, planning student conferences, and developing summer environmental research projects for college students. His goal is “to inspire more people and bring them into environmental protection through my activism.”

Luo Rui, Peking University CDM Club and JIFF (Joint Initiative for the Future)

Luo Rui, a master’s student in environmental science at Peking University in Beijing, is a leader in the CDM Club, Peking University’s environmental club, and a founding member of a new network called JIFF (Joint Initiative for the Future). The CDM Club was founded in 2006 with the goal of promoting awareness and action on climate change at Peking University and beyond. Luo Rui is passionate about climate change, which he first became concerned about as an undergraduate student. In his opinion, this past year was a significant turning point for climate change activism in China: “climate change and related energy issues become the central discussion over one night.” He currently directs the green campus program of the CDM Club, which is working on a greenhouse gas inventory of Peking University and plans to use the results of the inventory to promote investments in energy efficiency on campus.

In 2007, Luo Rui worked with other Chinese and foreign youth leaders living in Beijing to create JIFF, which was designed to provide a bridge for communication between foreign and Chinese climate activists. JIFF aims to build on and adapt the knowledge and resources already developed by the American student climate movement to develop a platform for helping students run green campus projects in China.

Su Jianhua, Green Student Forum

Su Jianhua, a recent graduate of China Mining University, now works for Syntao, an NGO focusing on corporate social responsibility; she was previously a leader in the Green Student Forum, one of the oldest and best-known student environmental organizations in China. GSF runs leadership and capacity-building trainings for students, and publishes a quarterly newsletter featuring student activities from all over China. Su has been concerned about environmental issues since she was in elementary school, when she was shocked by the serious pollution of the river in her hometown. In college, she became involved in the Green Student Forum, and last year she also helped develop a project investigating energy waste on her campus.

Zhang Dongli, the College Environmental Forum

Zhang Dongli, another CEF leader, is currently a junior at Bryn Mawr College in the United States, where she majors in urban studies. She is using her unique position as a Chinese student environmental leader studying abroad to help bridge the American and Chinese environmental movements. She has organized Chinese students to translate campaign resources from American student environmental organizations into Chinese. She has also helped to initiate CEF’s new focus on climate change. Due in part to her leadership, CEF has formed a climate committee, which presented its “Declaration of Chinese Youth and College Student on Climate Action” to the Live Earth concert in Shanghai this past summer. CEF is planning to promote climate projects on university campuses, ranging from greenhouse gas emissions inventories to green building campaigns, and promote the integration of courses on climate change into the university education system. They hope to issue a guide to youth climate activism next year. Zhang Dongli believes that CEF’s leadership on climate change will help “raise the student environmental movement to another level.”

“A long way to go”

Despite the difficulty of organizing in China, the urgency of China’s environmental problems has inspired a new generation of students to take action. Although the student environmental movement in China is young, student leaders are excited that the movement is learning and growing rapidly. Today’s generation of student environmental leaders are increasingly sophisticated, learning from their counterparts in developed countries and creating a new brand of student environmental activism to fit within the Chinese system. Their work reaches from the campus to the national level and covers issues from biodiversity to climate change. Yet despite their passion and enthusiasm, the student leaders are under no illusions about the severity of the threats to China’s environment. As Su Jianhua put it, “we are not satisfied with China's progress on this issue and it is a long way to go to improve the [situation].”

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