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.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: How should Labour respond?

The government always gets a boost out of big setpieces. But elections are won over months not days. 

Three days in the political calendar are utterly frustrating for Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition – the Queen’s Speech, the Budget and the Autumn Statement. No matter how unpopular the government is – and however good you are as an opposition - this day is theirs. The government will dominate the headlines. And played well they will carry the preceding with pre-briefed good news too. You just have to accept that, but without giving in or giving up.

It is a cliche that politics is a marathon not a sprint, but like most cliches that observation is founded in truth. So, how best to respond on the days you can’t win? Go to the fundamentals. And do the thing that oddly is far too little done in responses to budgets or autumn statements – follow the money.

No choices in politics are perfect - they are always trade offs. The art is in balancing compromises not abolishing them. The politics and the values are expressed in the choices that you make in prioritising. This is particularly true in budgets where resources are allocated across geographies - between towns, cities and regions, across time - short term or long term, and across the generations - between young and old. To govern is to choose. And the choices reveal. They show the kind of country the government want to create - and that should be the starting point for the opposition. What kind of Britain will we be in five, ten, fifteen years as these decisions have their ultimate, cumulative impact?

Well we know, we are already living in the early days of it. The Conservative government is creating a country in which there are wealthy pensioners living in large homes they won, while young people who are burdened with debts cannot afford to buy a home. One in which health spending is protected - albeit to a level a third below that of France or Germany – while social care, in an ageing society, is becoming residualised. One where under-regulated private landlords have to fill the gap in the rented market caused by the destruction of the social housing sector.

But description, though, is not sufficient. It is only the foundation of a critique - one that will succeed only if it describes not only the Britain the Tories are building but also the better one that Labour would deliver. Not prosaically in the form of a Labour programme, but inspirationally as the Labour promise.

All criticism of the government – big and little – has to return to this foundational narrative. It should connect everything. And it is on this story that you can anchor an effective response to George Osborne. Whatever the sparklers on the day or the details in the accompanying budgetary documentation, the trajectory is set. The government know where they are going. So do informed commentators. A smart opposition should too. The only people in the dark are the voters. They feel a pinch point here, a cut there, an unease and unfairness everywhere – but they can’t sum it up in words. That is the job of the party that wants to form a government – describing in crisp, consistent and understandable terms what is happening.

There are two traps on the day. The first is narrowcasting - telling the story that pleases you and your closest supporters. In that one the buzzwords are "privatisation" and "austerity". It is the opposite of persuasion aimed, as it is, at insiders. The second is to be dazzled by the big announcements of the day. Labour has fallen down here badly recently. It was obvious on Budget Day that a rise in the minimum wage could not compensate for £12bn of tax credit cuts. The IFS and the Resolution Foundation knew that. So did any adult who could do arithmetic and understood the distributional impact of the National Minimum Wage. It could and should have been Labour that led the charge, but frontbenchers and backbenchers alike were transfixed by the apparent appropriation of the Living Wage. A spot of cynicism always comes in handy. In politics as in life, if something seems to be too good to be true then … it is too good to be true.

The devil may be in the detail, but the error is in the principle – that can be nailed on the day. Not defeated or discredited immediately, but the seeds planted.  

And, if in doubt, take the government at their word. There is no fiercer metric against which to measure the Tories than their own rhetoric. How can the party of working people cut the incomes of those who have done the right thing? How can the party who promised to protect the health service deliver a decade of the lowest ever increases in spending? How can the party of home ownership banish young people to renting? The power in holding a government to account is one wielded forensically and eloquently for it is in the gap between rhetoric and reality that ordinary people’s lives fall.

The key fact for an opposition is that it can afford to lose the day if it is able to win the argument. That is Labour’s task.