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
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.