Against the backdrop of the recent (and ongoing) global financial crisis, China’s exports shrank sharply. Changes were clearly needed in the country’s mode of export-oriented economic growth. As such, in order to ensure eight-percent economic growth in 2009, a series of measures have been taken, including financial investments of some four trillion yuan (USD 585.6 billion), instituting increasingly active credit policies, and stimulating domestic consumption. This latter, however, while critical for the Chinese economy, now seems to be inevitably running directly counter to broader initiatives to curb China’s carbon footprint – particularly in international forums, where the issue has reached a frenzied pitch in the run-up to the Copenhagen talks in December.
In 2008, the Chinese government launched ‘village appliance’ schemes nationwide, offering subsidies in an attempt to boost the sale of televisions, refrigerators, washing machines and mobile phones in rural areas. In 2009, another two billion yuan (nearly USD 300 million) was invested in a ‘new-for-old’ policy that has seen individuals and businesses sell back old appliances, in turn receiving a 10 percent subsidy on new purchases. In addition, the automobile market is benefiting from subsidies and tax breaks, and many cities have been handing out vouchers to locals. Clearly, China, together with many other countries around the world, is focusing increasing attention on its domestic market, in an attempt to expand domestic demand and increase economic growth. And in stark opposition to what was long the abiding rule in China, consumption and consumerism have become all the craze – as legitimated by the government itself.
The Chinese have never been heavy consumers, either because they did not have the resources or because, given the lack of a welfare system, they were forced to save their money for a rainy day. But three decades of economic growth have given the Chinese citizenry ample material desires; a lifestyle has by now taken root that hopes to keep up with the rich, particularly to keep up with the Americans. Today, as soon as the Chinese people are able to consume, many do so, no less than the citizens of the developed countries do. Yet as mass consumption is being actively encouraged, the hope for a low-carbon lifestyle – with low consumption, low emissions and low pollution – is all the more easily ignored.
Another risk of pushing for increased consumption is the inevitable inflation of consumer expectation. Two recent surveys underscore this point. First, a special feature on a well-known Chinese website recently described white-collar workers as ‘killers of the environment’. The white-collar lifestyle involves high levels of consumption, goes the logic, and consumption is the natural enemy of the environment. In a poll on the website, the vast majority of those surveyed said that it is everyone’s duty to protect the environment. But despite such seemingly widespread views (at least amongst those with Internet access), what actually takes place on the ground is far different. Starting in the beginning of July, hotels in Changsha, the capital of south-central Hunan province, were no longer supplying items such as disposable toothbrushes and single-use tubes of toothpaste for free; now, guests are being charged a fee for these products. Yet a second survey, taken shortly after the change, found that 77 percent of respondents opposed the move, complaining of inconvenience.
These two findings demonstrate the deep-seated clash between ideas of consumption and environmental protection in China today. Three decades ago, environmental awareness was non-existent in the country; and today, the environment is often the focus of public debate. But despite this undeniable sea change in public understanding, the Chinese seem to be becoming ever more like the Americans at whom they so often point fingers – happy to protect the environment, as long as they do not need to change their lifestyles.
The policy of encouraging consumption has added difficulty to the promotion of a low-carbon lifestyle. In addition, a low-carbon lifestyle runs up against many problems when it comes to implementation. Take this one example: In recent years, China has successfully popularised energy-saving lamps, with a goal set for getting 100 million more such lamps into general use this year alone. But energy-saving as these lamps are, it has now been reported that they contain mercury and phosphor, both of which are harmful to workers who build these lamps, and for the environment when they are ultimately discarded. Waste water, as well as mercury vapour produced during the manufacturing process, is currently being discharged without treatment. After these lamps wear out most are simply dumped in landfills, with no effort at recovery or education on the matter. Thus, on the surface, using an energy-saving lamp certainly seems to be a positive step towards instituting a low-carbon lifestyle and society. However, without effective social-protection mechanisms, it is difficult for consumers to be sure whether they have actually made a low-carbon choice.
This disconnect can have far-reaching consequences, including for those who do currently believe in the importance of reducing one’s carbon usage. A colleague in Beijing recently bought an energy-saving light bulb to replace a standard one. He said he was happy with his choice. It may have cost 30 yuan (around USD 4.50), ten times the price of a filament bulb, but he said he wanted to save energy as part of his new low-carbon lifestyle. And according to the retailer, he would be doing just that in the long run, thus easily balancing out the 30 yuan he was spending. Yet just a month later, his expensive new light bulb blew out, before he had saved even a fraction of the purchase price. Will he stick to his idealised high-cost, low-carbon, lifestyle? Hopefully, but it is doubtful.
~ Huo Weiya is operations-and-development manager for Chinadialogue in Beijing and former editor-in-chief of the Environmental Culture Newsletter.