Does The Average Chinese Person Care About the Environment?

In the lead up to, and in the middle of, the recent Copenhagen discussions the role of China as either the biggest polluter or as the biggest Cleantech investor has been the focal point for many. It is a bipolar focus that has defined many of the discussions on China in the past, and as the recently reviewed debate on whether China is a developed or developing country highlights, it is a condition that seems to rarely have an end.

It is an impossible situation that often removes the context of many issues aside, and as part of our efforts to understand the Chinese position, we surveyed 84 people on the streets of Shanghai to understand their understanding of the issues, their concerns, and who they felt were going to be the parties responsible for solving the problems faced.

The answers were quite interesting.

To put this short study into the proper context for you, we surveyed two groups. The first group of 49 were a random sampling of people in two areas of Shanghai, one high rent district and one typically middle class. The second group of 32 respondents were undergraduate students at one of Shanghai’s most prestigious universities, and were targeted to represent the group most likely to have a passion for the issues and a desire for big changes.

The survey was 15 questions in length that consisted of 20 yes or no selections and 2 open questions, and was constructed to understand general awareness, knowledge of current discussions in surrounding climate change, and understand the level of “sacrifice” that each respondent felt was acceptable to address the issues faced.

Spend any amount of time in China, and one will immediately recognize the fact that China faces environmental challenges, that its economic growth has had a societal cost not factored into the price of its exports, but a price which its people are keenly aware of. So much so, that when asked if climate change was a concern of theirs, 83% said yes, and when asked if the economy was more important than the environment, only 23% said yes.

That, contrary to popular belief, the average Chinese person (as a person) sees the environment as being more important than the economy. Issues of most concern included: Climate Change (42%), Air Quality (18%), Water quality (17.%), and chemical pollution (5%).

Issues that are not uncommon for developing nations, but in the context of the current debate in Copenhagen, could explain why China and the US are looking at the issues of climate change differently.

When it came to assigning responsibility, we were not surprised to see that 90% of respondents felt that the government was not only responsible for climate change, but was also responsible for fixing the problems of climate change (96%). China has historically been a state where social issues were addressed from the top, and a culture of relying on the government to solve big problems is still very prevalent in China. Perhaps more interesting though was the fact that while many felt companies shared the blame (91%), and should be responsible for fixing the problems (84%), only 55% of respondents saw NGOs as a group who should be responsible for addressing the issues.

On a personal level, while most residents of Shanghai may appear to be leading busy lives lacking of awareness or regard for the environment, 80% of respondents felt they were partly to blame for climate change and were responsible for making changes to reverse climate change (87%), with 94% of respondents saying human kind would need to change in order to prevent larger climate problems.

Changes they themselves were willing to make at different levels:

  • Pay more per meter for an energy efficient apartment: 41.5%
  • Purchase energy efficient light bulbs and appliances: 98.8%
  • Pay more taxes to support government efforts: 24.4%
  • Pay more for “green” goods 86.6%
  • Take public transportation vs. buying a car 80.5%
  • Buy Carbon offsets 40.2%
  • Become vegetarian 16%

That the respondents not only recognized that there was a problem, but that they were willing to take on a level of personal responsibility to fix the problems faced, was another sign of encouragement for us.

In the way of progress though was one systemic barrier, the role of education. An issue that many understood to be a problem, only 6% of respondents believed that China’s educational system did a good job in the area of environmental education. Only 6%!

So what does all this mean? What should we take away from this survey?

  1. Chinese citizens are aware of the fact that uncurbed economic growth has environmental costs
  2. The average citizens are aware of climate change, however they have more pressing everyday issues in water, air, and other pollutions.
  3. Citizens believe that everyone has a role: Government, corporations, NGOs, and themselves
  4. Citizens understand they must change, and are willing to make certain changes.
  5. China needs to begin systematically teaching environmental awareness through the education system.
  6. These issues will transcend Copenhagen, and will only grow in nature if left unaddressed.

In the months to come, and the years ahead, there is little question that China will have to move away from an economic system that subsidizes growth with the environment. The problems that were once easily managed are growing in scale and size, and the mantra “growth at all costs” is being lost.

Linked to carbon, and the general topic of climate change, we would expect China to address daily issues of air pollution, water pollution, and industrial contamination as part of their drive to improve efficiency levels, and they will need help. It is a process that will take time, and regardless of the amount of money invested in a technology or that technology’s capacity, it will be a process that will be measured on its positive impact on the environment.

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