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Sustainability

Conferences of consequence

by Berthold M. Kuhn

In brief

Beijing's people suffer smog.

Beijing's people suffer smog.

The effectiveness of big international summits is often questioned. In China, however, they help to boost the interest in “Green Growth”, which offers opportunities to bilateral cooperation as well as German industries.

Regarding binding treaties on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Europeans consider China a particularly hard negotiator. It is true that China is not prepared to accept reduction obligations at the international level although its share in humankind's annual carbon emissions keeps growing. It is now 28 %, according to the latest statistics.

At the same time, China has domestically set ambitious goals for energy efficiency and renewable energy. The target for the use of solar power by 2020 was raised five times, for instance. Regarding wind energy, development is fast too. The 12th Five-year-plan (2011 to 2015), the government's recent White Paper on energy and documents of the party congress in November make clear statements on environmental issues. China, moreover, is investing massively in research and development.

Growing environmental awareness is also evident in the strength of Chinese delegations at UN summits. Thirty civil society organisations from the People's Republic were present at the Rio+20 event last summer, when the UN took stock of trends since the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. They hosted several events and presented reports of their own. Ten years earlier in Johannesburg, only 12 Chinese non-governmental organisations (NGOs) participated, and not a single Chinese NGO made it to the first Rio summit in 1992.

Such civil society activism should be taken seriously, even though China's government still limits its space and scope. However, citizens take advantage of the opportunities that arise (see Peter Patze in D+C/E+Z 2012/09, p. 336), and the government tends to grant more space when it sees that independent organisations ultimately aspire to the same goals as it does itself. In environmental matters, this is the case, and non-governmental organisations tend to speak more openly than government officers.

Based on a survey, Zhang Yangyong states that  NGOs' attitude towards global summits is more sceptical than that of Chinese scholars who mostly work for public sector institutions. He is involved in a research cooperation of Xiamen University with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. According to him, Chinese experts' assessment of world summits tends to generally be more favourable than that of their western counterparts.

 

Everyday worries


In China, expert interest in world summits is probably related to the fact that environmental policymaking is rather new in China, but is perceived as quite urgent. The country is facing huge environmental problems, as was widely reported by international media in response to Beijing's smog this winter. Whilst China is running lots of innovative green projects, there is still plenty of business as usual too.

Not least due to civil society efforts, the awareness for environmental issues is growing. Whether that has an impact on people's behaviour is being researched by social scientists.  Hong Dayong, a sociology professor at Beijing's Renmin University, reports that, in the Chinese General Social Survey of 2010, environmental issues turned out to rank fifth among people's everyday worries.

Committed NGOs are supporting the scholars. For instance, Green Beagle, an independent organisation, surveyed more than 3000 households in regard to climate-friendly behaviour. The result was somewhat sobering. It showed that, as people's incomes rise, so does their understanding of environmental matters, but since they also consume more, they do not act in a more environment-friendly manner. Social studies have shown similar patterns in other countries.

In China, a country where poverty persists in some places, environmentalists do not appeal to people to reduce consumption as they do in rich nations. Nonetheless, the interest of the government and citizens in Green Growth, one of the main issues at the Rio+20 conference, is real. To keep up the summit's momentum, the University of Xiamen hosted two conferences in December in cooperation with German partners (the Federal Environment Ministry, the Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Protection of the German Land Rhineland-Palatinate, the German Consulate in Guangzhou and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation). One conference was devoted to resource efficiency, the second to waste management.


Garbage in a “low carbon city”

Xiamen is a coastal city of 3 million people facing Taiwan. It was one of the first “special economic zones” and is now one of China's eight „low carbon cities“. The term means that model initiative are being implemented in regard to industrial production, housing and traffic. But that is only a starting point.

For a long time, the low-carbon strategy did not take account of waste issues. The city only invested in waste incineration and landfills recently and is beginning to consider recycling. There are many double rubbish bins in the streets. They are supposed to help people dispose of different kinds of garbage separately. The double bins are not used much, however, and probably do not make much of a difference so far. As a consultant from a German company points out, moreover, the new incinerator and recently expanded landfill capacities are no real incentive for recycling.

Nonetheless, Gottfried Jung who works for the government of Rhineland-Palatinate thinks that Xiamen offers good opportunities for using German waste management technology. His Land is involved in a partnership with the Province of Fujian, to which Xiamen belongs. Patrick Schröder expresses similar optimism. On  behalf of a German development agency, he works for the Chinese Association of NGO Cooperation (CANGO). In his eyes, the combination of top-down policies with bottom-up campaigns is promising because it is laying the foundations China needs to eventually achieve its ambitious climate goals.

Guangzhou is under particular pressure. This city of 13 million people is the capital of Guangdong Province in the Pearl River Delta. In absolute numbers, Guangdong has the highest carbon emissions (500 million tons annually) of all provinces. The national government insists on a reduction by 19.5 % below the baseline of 2005 by 2015, and even 45 % by 2020. As a representative of Guangzhou's mayor's office said in Xiamen in December, that will only be possible on the basis of international cooperation.

Zhijia Zhou, who earned his PhD in Germany and now teaches sociology at Xiamen University, says it is impossible to predict what bridges interdisciplinary conferences build for real-world purposes. But there can be no doubt, according to him, that German experiences are being carefully assessed in China, and checked for their relevance in the People's Republic.