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Civil society

Chinese paths to climate protection

China faces growing international pressure to do more for climate protection. Recently, Chinese non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have also started engaging with the issue more vigorously. They do so in cooperation with international organisations and networks – and are caught between a restrictive government, international requirements and their own goals.

[ By Miriam Schröder and Melanie Müller ]

Chinese NGOs addressing environmental issues have become a fashionable topic in Western media, and for good reason. They combine two of the West’s great hopes in China: the blossoming of a civil society and the contribution to global environmental and climate protection. On both fronts, change is indeed taking place. In the mid-1990s, there were only a handful of registered environmental organisations in China; in 2006, the All China Environmental Federation reported 2,768.

Apart from the conventional issues of nature conservation, there is also a sharpening focus on climate change, with the Chinese increasingly networking with like minded international groups. At the same time, their government imposes considerable limitations. It mo­nitors the organisations’ work and sometimes even restricts it. NGO workers walk a tightrope.

Climate matters

In 2004 and 2005, bottlenecks in energy supply hit both consumers and industry hard. Since then, the government has declared climate protection, a national target for energy efficiency and renewable energy production top priorities, stating that it is thus contributing to international climate protection.

Chinese NGOs are also discovering the issue. When they presented a first joint statement on the Kyoto Protocol in Bali in December 2007, they caused quite a stir. The statement was based on a poll of 100 Chinese NGOs and was organised by Chinas “Friends of Nature” with the help of international groups.

However, some considered the result to be “too conservative” and “boring”. The statement was in line with the government’s position. Some Chinese NGO representatives agree with the criticism. One complained: “No Western NGO would have issued a statement like this. There is nothing in the document that we need to work towards; all the demands have already been met.”

Nevertheless, the paper was a first step towards Chinese civil society gaining voice in climate matters, and China’s official delegation in Bali welcomed it. In future, that may prove the base for a more controversial debate.

Inform, educate, advise

NGOs in China have developed a different campaign style than their Western counterparts: they inform, educate and advise. Saving energy means saving money, so climate protection is regarded as both a local and a social problem. Confrontation or “naming and shaming” campaigns, which put institutions under pressure by exposing them in public, are taboo. Criticism, however, is allowed, provided it includes constructive proposals for a solution.

The activists consider media and information campaigns as effective strategies for promoting their goals. For example, they invite government officials to workshops and information events. Depending on how explosive an issue is, journalists, scientists and civic interest groups also take part.

There is a growing number of campaigns that relate to climate protection. More than ten Chinese and international NGOs with
operations in China are planning to form a climate action network – “CAN China”. By cooperating in the global CAN network, they hope to present their position on climate change more effectively on the international stage. “NGOs have more influence when they work in networks. They can share their knowledge and thus achieve something,” says one of the initiators. Within the CAN framework, international expertise can be harnessed and the advice of international partners sought: “The network is like a bridge.”

Chinese student groups are pioneering international cooperation: Seven “green” student organisations have formed the Youth Climate Action Network (CYCAN), a platform for conducting climate-change campaigns at universities as well as networking with international student groups.

At the moment, they are working on establishing carbon footprints for 24 Chinese universities, assessing those institutions’ emissions. They have encountered administrative obstacles. Nevertheless, they hope the campaign will create awareness of the need for climate-friendly campuses among students, faculty and administration of the universities.

A success story was the “26°” campaign launched by six NGOs in 2005. To conserve energy, they turned all air-conditioning units in the summer to 26 degree Celsius, thus cutting carbon emissions by 350,000 to 550,000 tons, and saving quite a bit of money. The activists see a partial success in the fact that the State Council issued a re­solution in 2007 calling for air-conditioning units in public buildings to be fitted with temperature controls.

Major events are good campaign opportunities – for both Western and Chinese organisations. Ahead of the Olympic Games, for example, WWF China initiated the "Go for Gold" campaign, calling upon participating athletes to offset the carbon emissions from their flights by donating the equivalent cost to climate-friendly initiatives. One of these projects was the construction of a wind farm in Fujian Province.

Close cooperation with the government

The various NGO programmes, however, have one thing in common. They toe the government line. To operate as a non-
governmental organisation at all, a group needs to overcome bureaucratic hurdles. It has to register with the Ministry for Civil
Affairs or with the Ministry's local office. It must submit a statement of its aims and intentions. To become registered, every NGO needs a government sponsor, an agency that supervises the NGO’s activities and verifies its status annually.

After the institutional hurdles have been dealt with, NGO workers stay under surveillance by the authorities. Moreover, they need high-level contacts if they are to conduct effective lobbying. Many have the mobile phone numbers of the relevant government employees or maintain E-mail contact. Such informal and unbureaucratic links facilitate cooperation. Conversely, government representatives are also interested in the NGOs, as an activist explains: “They want to know what the NGOs think. We don't have much influence in the country but when we go to an international conference, we represent China, and our views can impact on them. Therefore the government wants to know what we think.”

The activist also believes the government is aware of gaining international credibility through the NGOs. "Both sides want to see environmental goals met, and are working for global targets to be set. But we have different roles. If we held the same views as the government, we could just join the government.”

International networking

Chinese NGOs rarely conduct campaigns on their own. In many cases, they cooperate with other environmental actors or with international non-governmental organisations (INGOs). For one thing, they are hard pressed financially. Fund-raising campaigns are starting to be conducted but they do not bring in much money in China. Moreover, Chinese groups hope to benefit from the experience of international orga­nisations. Finally, Chinese climate NGOs simply do not have the capacities to run large-scale projects on their own.

“Chinese organisations have difficulties doing policy work. That is why we plan to set up the CAN,” reports a Chinese NGO activist. Anyone who wants to join in a debate needs knowledge comparable to other actors and the capacity to compile relevant information. Without technical competence, one cannot assess options and decide which stand to take. That, however, is something government-run think tanks do not do. “I see it as a process like the one the environmental movement went through in Europe,” the same source explains. “In China, the movement is only 13 years old. But it has come a long way – despite the constraints of the government.”

But cooperation with international NGOs can be problem-ridden. Cultural differences are a frequent source of difficulties: many INGOs cannot properly assess the si­tuation on the ground. They demand things from their Chinese partners that cannot be met. Rather than implement small pilot projects at local level, foreign groups often want to bring about nationwide change straight away. Such ambitions overstretch the capacities of the Chinese NGOs.

Capacity shortages

Apart from organisational difficulties, the NGOs focus on issues that are not always easy to address. Climate change is a complex subject requiring a great deal of know­ledge. Moreover, China has plenty of local environmental problems of its own making. Therefore, many Chinese NGOs set other priorities than tackling climate change. Doing so, however, deprives them of influence on the implementation of programmes, for instance in the context of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).

The CDM is one of the three “flexible mechanisms” of the Kyoto Protocol. CDM projects in developing countries reduce carbon emissions and result in certificates which companies in industrial countries can buy to offset their own emissions. During the planning phase, CDM projects have to be published on the Internet for comment, in order to enable local people and civil society in general to express reservations or draw attention to untapped potentials.

NGOs basically see CDM projects as an opportunity to attract foreign investment for renewable-energy schemes or afforestation programmes. So they do not voice criti­cism of such ventures: “Most projects are reducing emissions so it is unlikely that they will produce much public anger from their activities”. But some NGOs warn that the environmental impact assessments required for CDM projects are not always carried out properly. Moreover, they argue there is too much emphasis on reducing emissions: “Projects should not revolve solely around climate change but also around poverty reduction and the preservation of biological diversity.”

For this reason, the INGO The Nature Conservancy lobbies environmental government agencies in China at central and provincial levels to follow international Climate, Community and Biodiversity Standards (CCB) in afforestation projects. They want to make sure that local concerns are considered in project planning. Moreover they insist that afforestation programmes not only be assessed in terms of how much carbon emissions they reduce, but also in terms of their contribution to biodiversity.

NGO mediation

Local NGOs are nothing like an established force in Chinese politics. In the field in which they operate, they are too torn between restrictive government, international requirements and their own goals. Nonetheless, they have managed to assume an important role as mediators. Conveying new ideas from the international stage to China's policymakers, they act as catalysts. Similar as non governmental think tanks, they are developing their own ideas for addressing climate change. In most cases, however, they lack the capacities – not to mention, sometimes, the campaign management experience and expertise in the field of climate change – to make the most of these opportunities.

European actors should take advantage of the growing interest in climate protection and help NGOs – both financially and by transferring knowledge – to find a Chinese path to climate protection. At the same time, cultural differences and government constraints should not be underestimated. Otherwise, there is a risk of NGO workers being overburdened with Western standards and expectations that are totally inappropriate in China.


The UN Sustainable Development Goals aim to transform economies in an environmentally sound manner, leaving no one behind.