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Green at heart

Young Chinese willing to play their part in securing a carbon-neutral future


The young are the generation that will be most affected by climate change. This has bestowed on Chinese youth a greater sense of historical responsibility to take actions to combat climate change. The Report on Climate Awareness and Actions of Chinese Youth released by the China Youth Climate Action Network in December 2020 surveyed over 5,000 people between the ages of 18 to 24 at colleges across the country, including top-tier establishments and vocational schools.

The majority of respondents (84 percent) were aware of the gravity of climate change, describing it as a "very serious" or "quite serious "issue. And 41.6 percent of respondents described it as "the most serious global issue today", followed by social inequality (12.9 percent) and public health (8.3 percent).

The respondents generally support climate justice, recognizing the need to be responsible toward future generations. Ninety-five percent of respondents agreed that "it is necessary to be responsible, and take account of future generations". In addition, 60 percent said countries have different environmental responsibilities according to specific circumstances--the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities".

According to the report, young Chinese are also more willing to pay for greener options: 68 percent said they would pay higher prices for environmentally friendly products, and 62 percent were willing to pay more taxes to help protect the environment; 57 percent would lower their standard of living for the same goal.

When it comes to acting on climate change, Chinese youths think the public should be the main actors, and that the central government is the most trustworthy source of information about climate change (56 percent), much higher than scientific research institutions (11 percent), environmental non-profit organizations (10 percent) and news media (9 percent).

Taking the central government as the most trustworthy source of climate-related information and the public as having the most responsibility for climate actions means younger Chinese are willing to cooperate with the government on actions to address climate change. Rather than the more radical Western model of "climate activists", young Chinese people are more likely to seek changes in their own lives in pursuit of low-carbon lifestyles.

However, to date, the public has only a very limited understanding of climate issues, indicating that the green revolution that's about to take place in China requires structural changes. We believe that Chinese youth, which takes the lead in climate awareness, could and should become the advocator of climate change communication and promote the enhancement of climate awareness and the adoption of low-carbon lifestyles and green consumption among the public by introducing their personal actions to the wider public to catalyze bigger changes in society.

On the other side of the equation, promoting a low-carbon transformation of campuses is an important means for Chinese youth to contribute to China's carbon neutrality goal. Fridays for Future is a movement that began in August 2018, after 15-year-old Greta Thunberg and other young activists sat in front of the Swedish parliament every schoolday for three weeks, to protest against the lack of action on the climate crisis. She posted what she was doing on Instagram and Twitter and it soon went viral. This is the first time that youth climate actions took the global center stage.

Coping with the climate crisis requires the concerted efforts of youth around the world. Youth of different countries should cooperate with each other based on their respective strengths to usher in a carbon-neutral future as soon as possible.

But when it comes to acting on climate change, rather than the model of activism promoted by Greta Thunberg, young Chinese people tend to integrate their climate actions into their daily lives on campus.

According to the Ministry of Education, China had 2,663 higher education institutions in 2019, and there were 38.33 million students, more than the combined population of the five Nordic countries. Some mega-sized universities have 50,000 to 60,000 students on campus, a much larger number than that of employees of some large corporations. China's 2060 carbon neutrality goal will be based on the carbon neutrality plans of cities so university campuses could become the perfect incubator and pilot area for intelligent and innovative solutions for climate issues and low-carbon design schemes. Each university campus is a micro-sized city and they are well positioned for the comprehensive interdisciplinary application of green action plans. The green action plans that have been proven effective and optimized on university campuses could be used as references for the low-carbon transformation plans of Chinese cities.

According to the report, almost all Chinese youth first learned about "climate change" in school classrooms. The school education received before the age of 18 shapes a person's awareness of climate change while the practice and thinking after the age of 18 determine a person's climate actions. Young people are the future consumers and decision-makers. When promoting government and business actions on climate change, we should also take concrete actions in nearby campuses to promote the concept of carbon neutrality, such as encouraging low-carbon practices in different parts of campus and constantly improving the mechanism. Courses on climate change should be mandatory and higher learning institutions should adopt an interdisciplinary general education curriculum on climate change, and accelerate the carbon-neutral transformation by calculating the total energy used on campus and fostering actions to increase the proportion of renewable energy.

If each and every young Chinese person studies in a carbon-neutral mini-society, it will be the best climate education. If a young person, accepts that he/she has a responsibility to ensure a carbon-neutral future and acts on it, then climate education can be considered a success. The young people will then "transplant" what they have experienced on campus into society when they leave campus.

The author is a senior program officer of the China Youth Climate Action Network. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.