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Compared to previous generations, Chinese born between 1995 and 2010 – known as Generation Z – are more environmentally aware. Photo: Bloomberg

Why China’s Gen Z see climate change as less important than their Western peers

  • Unlike their Western peers, protecting the environment is low on the list of public concerns for China’s Generation Z, surveys and interviews show
  • China’s green initiatives have been part of a top-down agenda and have had little to do with young people and the mass consumer market, expert says

Chinese university student Li Xiying would rather make the 10-minute walk from her dormitory to the campus cafeteria than accumulate a pile of takeaway containers, plastic utensils and bags. But she is often the only one among her friends.

Her five roommates usually order food delivery – even from the university cafeteria – said the 22 year old, who is studying in Zhuhai city in Guangdong province.

“We are all quick to say we are eco-friendly, but it is really just a small consideration for young people when making many decisions – and far less important than cost-effectiveness, convenience and trends,” Li said.

“If there is a conflict between convenience and environmental protection, we will choose the former.”

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Compared to previous generations, Chinese born between 1995 and 2010 – known as Generation Z – are more aware of climate change, place greater importance on protecting nature and are more inclined to buy sustainably-produced products.

But unlike many of their Western peers, the environment is low on their list of public concerns, according to surveys and interviews. Most prioritise health, social security and eliminating poverty – in line with the ruling Communist Party’s goals.

“Many global brands, like apparel and new energy vehicles, have tried promoting their sustainability and environmental, social and governance (ESG) credentials in the Chinese market,” said Paulina Lin, a media manager at a leading advertising agency in Shanghai.

“But what we have actually learned is that for China’s Gen Z and Millennial consumers, these are just additional value for a brand, or a ‘Nice to have’, but not key buying factors.”


Relief for Chinese students at end of high-stakes ‘gaokao’ college entrance exams

Relief for Chinese students at end of high-stakes ‘gaokao’ college entrance exams
China’s Gen Z consumers in particular have more diverse values than their parents, but the group shares a number of interests and concerns, Lin said. Namely, new technology, new experiences and national pride.

That differs to those with a similar age in the rest of the world, according to the recently released “2022 Global Generation Z Insights Report”.

When asked what global issues should receive the most attention post-pandemic, 40 per cent of Chinese Gen Z listed illness, social security and eliminating poverty.

Outside China, 41 per cent said they were most concerned about new technologies, climate change and economic development.

The report, which was released in late May by several Chinese universities and institutes, surveyed more than 3,000 Gen Zers in over 50 countries and regions, including China, France, Egypt, South Korea, Britain and the United States.

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The findings echoed another survey conducted by the Communist Party’s China Youth Daily in March of more than 72,000 Chinese aged below 40.

It showed respondents cared most about employment and education, with environmental protection 11th on the list of 13 main concerns, behind social welfare, housing, national security, coronavirus prevention and control, and marriage.

In contrast, climate change trumped all other concerns for Gen Zers in the US, according to a report from GWI, a marketing intelligence platform, earlier this year. Some 44 per cent of American Gen Z were most concerned about climate change, ahead of race relations and racism, gun violence and police brutality.

A 2021 Pew Research survey also found that 37 per cent of Gen Z in the US ranked climate change as the top concern for them personally. And some 32 per cent had taken part in at least one major environmental action in the past year, such as donating, volunteering, attending a rally, or contacting an elected official.


Number of marriages drops in China as more young people say no

Number of marriages drops in China as more young people say no

Wallis Chuo, a Guangzhou-based undergraduate student, said most Chinese took part in environmental initiatives only if they were aligned with national political and economic strategies.

“It is important to promote your own environmental goals, according to the different conditions in each country – then young people are working in the same direction,” she said.

“The Chinese government has made great efforts to promote environmental protection, no matter which aspect, from new energy applications to tackling pollution. I think there is still a lot of progress [and] nothing not to be unproud about.”

Wen Sheng, an 18-year-old high school student in Guangzhou, said China’s environmental issues are often attacked by the West, but her generation is satisfied with how the government is striking a balance between people’s livelihoods and the environment.

We will not copy the agenda and intensity of Western movements in our own country
Wen Sheng
“China once had serious industrial pollution, but it is common sense for China’s industries to move towards new energy and green electricity in the future,” he said.

“We also know that foreign environmental NGOs are more radical, but we do not agree with them … we will not copy the agenda and intensity of Western movements in our own country.”

In Wen’s last exam, one of the questions asked why Tesla – which has come to represent some of the most advanced technology in the world – chose China as its most important production base.

The answer that got the highest marks had to mention that Tesla’s decision fits China’s environmental initiatives and reflects the country’s green credentials and world-leading new energy industry, Wen said.

“It’s part of patriotic education, but we do have national pride in the country’s new energy development,” he said.

China announced in 2020 it would peak carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. Though it continues to commission new coal-fired power plants – especially as its economy slows – climate commitments have been incorporated into national development plans.

More visibly, the country has made notable gains in reducing air pollution, a campaign that started before the 2008 summer Olympic gains.

Concentrations of harmful microscopic particles known as PM2.5 fell by almost 40 per cent in China between 2013-20, adding two years to average life expectancy in the country of 1.4 billion people, according to a report from the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute this month.

Efforts to tackle smog and greenhouse gas emissions are part of a gradual shift in China’s development model, from pursuing “growth at all cost” to “high-quality growth”, with environmental quality a core objective.
Frankly, the awareness and voice of young consumers are not very crucial at present
Frank Cui

The shift has come from the top, with President Xi Jinping stressing that “ecological civilisation” – or sustainable development – must be an integral part of the country’s social and economic progress.

Because China’s green initiatives have been part of a top-down agenda, there has been little input from young people and the mass consumer market, said Frank Cui, a Beijing-based green energy supply chain specialist, who advises local governments.

“China’s dual-carbon goals mainly depend on the energy industry, as well as cutting emissions from eight industrial sectors – oil, chemicals, construction materials, steel, non-ferrous metals, papermaking, electric power and shipping, mostly state-run,” he said.

“Frankly, the awareness and voice of young consumers are not very crucial at present.”