Don't expect a green revolution in China soon

Educated, networked Chinese young people care about the environment – but that doesn't tell us about

Fascinating new research from the Carbon Trust, shows that Chinese 18-25 year olds put British ones to shame when it comes to caring - or, more accurately, claiming they care – about the environmental record of companies they do business with.

The difference between words and action isn't to be taken lightly, of course. The Carbon Trust asked young people in multiple countries whether they would "be more loyal" to a brand if they reduced their carbon footprint, and asked them if they would stop buying a product if a company "refused to commit to measuring and reducing its carbon footprint".

The first question relies rather heavily on unquantifiable definitions of "loyalty". The second is largely self-reported, and crucially avoids the follow-up question of whether the respondents have actually taken any action already. Talk is cheap.

Still, unless we are making bold claims about the respective likelihood of Chinese and British 18-25 year olds to lie to researchers, there is definitely a stronger feeling of consumer responsibility amongst the young people surveyed in China than here. Why might that be?

The breakdown of the responses might throw some light on the situation. Prior to speaking to the questioners, almost a third of Chinese respondents hadn't heard the term "carbon footprint", and another quarter of them had heard it but weren't sure what it means. These figures compare to just 4 per cent of British youths who hadn't heard the term, and another 18 per cent who had but didn't know it's meaning.

Since the "don't knows" and "don't understands" aren't filtered out of later questions, the Carbon Trust had to give them an explanation of what the term meant before they could proceed. This could explain part of the variation, depending on what the actual definition was. If they told those who didn't know the term that carbon footprint was "a measure of how much businesses contribute to global warning" we would expect different responses to if they merely said it was "a measure of how much carbon dioxide businesses produce".

When I asked, the Trust confirmed to me that the definition they provide is

A 'carbon footprint' measures the total greenhouse gas emissions caused directly and indirectly by a person, organisation, event or product.

Pretty neutral, then.

Another possible confounding factor can be found in the breakdown of employment status. Forty-five per cent of the Chinese respondents were in education, and 47 per cent were working; but the German centre for higher education estimates that, as of 2006, around 22 per cent of 18-22 year olds were in higher education. Since undergraduate ends at 23, and there as here, many enter the workforce rather than going on to study for a masters degree, the proportion for 23 to 25 year olds is likely to be even lower. Which strongly implies that the young Chinese people being interviewed were considerably wealthier than the average Chinese person.

I put this concern to the Trust, and they told me that:

"We used a sample which was representative of the population."

I have my doubts. In fact, my doubts should have been raised by the second line of the report, which reveals that the survey was conducted online. As of June 2010, China had 420 million internet users, 31.8 per cent of its population – and just 5.1 per cent of that was its rural population, as of 2007.

None of this is should detract from the findings of the study (well, maybe a little bit). Even if the sample isn't fully representative, the finding that educated, connected young Chinese people care more about exercising their consumer power in pursuit of green policy than their equivalents in Britain and America is interesting. But it does mean we shouldn't expect the full weight of the country's 1.3 billion people to be thrown behind the environment any time soon.

Pandas climb a tree in China. Credit: Getty

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.