Carbon debate creates climate for China's civil society to grow

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 December, 2009, 12:00am

If there has been a winner from global warming on the mainland, it is the NGO movement.

Growing public awareness of the issues surrounding climate change has galvanised environmental groups, helped raise their profiles and even allowed some to present policy recommendations to the government - big advances for a movement that was once starved of media attention and whose activities officialdom has severely restricted.

Dr Liu Bin , a climate researcher at Tsinghua University since the 1990s who is a member of China's negotiating team at the UN's climate summit in Copenhagen, said there had been a clear change in public attitudes.

'It used to be a scientific issue confined to a small academic circle, but it is one of the hottest topics of our time. It is not that the topic itself has undergone much change or climate threat has grown much worse; the international political environment has changed, and so has our attitude towards the issue.'

The talks in the Danish capital on new global steps to limit climate change have done much to raise environmental awareness on the mainland.

Three-quarters of 20,000 people under 35 polled recently agreed China had already suffered from the impact of global warming, and more than half said worse was to come. Four out of five said their lifestyles contributed to global warming and more than 70 per cent were willing to do something to reduce carbon emissions, such as buying environmentally friendly products and generating less waste, according to the poll, conducted by the China Youth Daily, internet news portal and the British Council.

In a sign of the interest in climate change, journalists from 50 mainland media outlets and volunteers from at least 20 non-governmental organisations have travelled to Copenhagen for the two-week summit.

'It's a great opportunity because I am really interested in studying how the climate-related system works and what we can do to tackle global warming,' said Huang Jing , a volunteer for the China University of Political Science and Law's Centre for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims.

Huang is in Copenhagen to study the legal framework for climate change. The 24-year-old Beijing law student was one of 50 representatives selected for the so-called Chinese youth leader delegation, which is sponsored by several mainland NGOs and overseas foundations.

'The trip is by no means cheap, and that's why a lot more people who wanted to go to the meeting aren't able to make it,' said environment editor Su Su .

Like Liu, Li Gao, a key climate negotiator with the National Development and Reform Commission, has seen public attitudes change. 'We used to invite domestic media to cover our negotiations, but they showed scant interest even when we offered to pay their expenses,' he said.

The news isn't all good, though. The poll by Sohu, the British Council and the China Youth Daily showed that most people are reluctant to make the dramatic lifestyle changes necessary to lower their 'carbon footprint' - the amount their daily activities contribute to global warming - and have a less comfortable existence.

While environmental campaigns by grass-roots NGOs enjoy more support now than previously, their lack of co-ordination and professionalism are stopping them gaining a bigger voice, according to Dr Wang Ming , director of Tsinghua University's NGO Research Centre.

Unlike their counterparts in developed countries, mainland NGOs have little leverage with the government or influence on important matters of policy.

'NGOs apparently play an important role in the coming of a civil society, as they largely represent the interests of the public,' Wang said. (There were more than 410,000 government-sanctioned NGOs at the end of last year, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs.)

'But climate change is a very complicated issue that goes beyond any single environmental topic, and that is a challenge for them,' he added.

Discussion of climate change on the mainland has largely been fuelled by the state-controlled media, which is trying to enlist public support for the government; Beijing has faced enormous international pressure to pledge tougher steps to combat climate change and has frequently been vilified by overseas media as a key obstacle to reaching a deal at the Copenhagen talks.

'For a highly charged issue like climate change, it's quite difficult for NGOs to offer independent thinking and find our own voice,' said Liang Xiaoyan, a founder of Friends of Nature, a well-known environmental NGO on the mainland.

Ma Jun, head of another NGO, the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, said the public was still used to counting on the government to tackle pollution.

He said China was at a crossroads in terms of tackling climate change: the ever-expanding middle class had begun to follow a Western lifestyle despite growing environmental awareness. 'The contradiction will undermine China's effort to cut carbon emissions, and NGOs should act to explain the consequences to the public and promote green consumption,' he said.

Ma said that, as well as offering tips about steps people can take in their daily lives to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and raising people's awareness, NGOs should work out how to harness the public's support and provide tailor-made environmentally friendly options for various audiences.

'We'll have to understand that the current mode of development will not be sustained because of its unbearable cost,' he said.

Yi Shui, deputy director of China Dialogue, an online publication focusing on environmental issues, said many NGOs still had difficulty understanding the importance of climate change because they had yet to see an extreme example of its impact. 'Mainland NGOs are apparently more preoccupied with water and air pollution, which is happening every day on our doorstep,' she said.

Although seven mainland NGOs began co-operating last month on a paper offering a series of policy recommendations for the government, Yi said they had not offered detailed guidance on how their lofty ideas for cutting carbon emissions could be implemented. But Ma, one of the drafters of the paper, said getting involved in policymaking was a first step in the right direction.

With China now the world's biggest single contributor to global warming, environmental groups have urged Beijing to take the lead among developing countries in combatting climate change and give NGOs a bigger say in policymaking and oversight.

Ma said discussions ahead of the Copenhagen talks had underlined the fact that the world was under severe threat because of global warming as well as from pollution in developing countries, for which he said rich nations were partly responsible.

'China's domestic pollution woes have gained much attention in a global context, which gives a push to its uphill campaign to curb pollution and improve energy efficiency, and creates more room for the building of a civil society,' he said.

Liang, of Friends of Nature, agrees. 'We should pay attention to global warming, but we are still living with polluted water and air, contaminated food and a soaring amount of untreated garbage, which pose more threats to our health,' she said. Mainland NGOs should not waste too much time playing up the impact of climate change.

Instead, she said, they should care more about building an open and just system and tackling practical issues, which provided the foundation for an emerging civil society.