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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Leader: History is not written in stone

Statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political.

When a mishmash of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Trump supporters and private militias gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August – a rally that ended in the death of a counter-protester – the ostensible reason was the city’s proposal to remove a statue of a man named Robert E Lee.

Lee was a Confederate general who surrendered to Ulysses S Grant at the Appomattox Court House in 1865, in one of the last battles of the American Civil War – a war fought to ensure that Southern whites could continue to benefit from the forced, unpaid labour of black bodies. He died five years later. It might therefore seem surprising that the contested statue of him in Virginia was not commissioned until 1917.

That knowledge, however, is vital to understanding the current debate over such statues. When the “alt-right” – many of whom have been revealed as merely old-fashioned white supremacists – talk about rewriting history, they speak as if history were an objective record arising from an organic process. However, as the American journalist Vann R Newkirk II wrote on 22 August, “obelisks don’t grow from the soil, and stone men and iron horses are never built without purpose”. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that few Confederate statues were commissioned immediately after the end of the war; instead, they arose in reaction to advances such as the foundation of the NAACP in 1909 and the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and 1960s. These monuments represent not history but backlash.

That means these statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political. They were designed to promote the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, in which the conflict was driven by states’ rights rather than slavery. A similar rhetorical sleight of hand can be seen in the modern desire to keep them in place. The alt-right is unwilling to say that it wishes to retain monuments to white supremacy; instead, it claims to object to “history being rewritten”.

It seems trite to say: that is inevitable. Our understanding of the past is perpetually evolving and the hero of one era becomes a pariah in the next. Feminism, anti-colonialism, “people’s history” – all of these movements have questioned who we celebrate and whose stories we tell.

Across the world, statues have become the focus for this debate because they are visible, accessible and shape our experience of public space. There are currently 11 statues in Parliament Square – all of them male. (The suffragist Millicent Fawcett will join them soon, after a campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez.) When a carving of a disabled artist, Alison Lapper, appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, its sculptor, Marc Quinn, acknowledged its significance. “This square celebrates the courage of men in battle,” he said. “Alison’s life is a struggle to overcome much greater difficulties than many of the men we celebrate and commemorate here.”

There are valid reasons to keep statues to figures we would now rather forget. But we should acknowledge this is not a neutral choice. Tearing down our history, looking it in the face, trying to ignore it or render it unexceptional – all of these are political acts. 

The Brexit delusion

After the UK triggered Article 50 in March, the Brexiteers liked to boast that leaving the European Union would prove a simple task. The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, claimed that a new trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history” to negotiate and could be agreed before the UK’s scheduled departure on 29 March 2019.

However, after the opening of the negotiations, and the loss of the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority, reality has reasserted itself. All cabinet ministers, including Mr Fox, now acknowledge that it will be impossible to achieve a new trade deal before Brexit. As such, we are told that a “transitional period” is essential.

Yet the government has merely replaced one delusion with another. As its recent position papers show, it hopes to leave institutions such as the customs union in 2019 but to preserve their benefits. An increasingly exasperated EU, unsurprisingly, retorts that is not an option. For Britain, “taking back control” will come at a cost. Only when the Brexiteers acknowledge this truth will the UK have the debate it so desperately needs. 

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia