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

Pandas climb a tree in China. Credit: Getty

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.