One is a student engineer who became obsessed after watching a film about air pollution. The other is a 16-year-old who went on China’s first climate strike.
Zhao Jiaxin and Howey Ou are part of a small but growing minority of young people determined to press their country towards more radical carbon-cutting action. The pair are also the country’s sole winners of carbon neutral “green tickets” the United Nations is providing to 100 young people around the world.
China is the world’s leading carbon emitter. It generates 60 per cent of its electricity from coal-fired power and coal consumption, and carbon emissions have risen for two years in a row. Emissions are expected to rise again in the figures for this year.
Yet within the country, the positive half of the picture is more likely to be heard: how devoted the nation is to Xi Jinping’s goal of constructing an “ecological civilisation”, how China is a climate change leader compared to the US, and how much record-breaking renewable energy capacity it continues to install.
Howey does not think this is enough. She conducted a public climate strike in front of government offices in Guilin for several days in late May – Greta Thunberg called her a “true hero” – before the authorities said she had to stop because she did not have a permit.
The 16-year-old, who spends her spare time planting trees around her hometown, was nominated to travel to last week’s United Nations climate summit in New York by the youth activist group Earth Uprising and nearly had to back out of attending because her chaperone was worried she would not stick to the central government's script.
“People in China don’t know the situation and think the government is doing a lot and is great,” she said. “The point is that people here can’t petition to protest and do something about the climate. Even if people want to change [things], they think activism in China will fail and the cost is too [high].”
In a country where the party line controls the climate debate to the extent that a general apathy infuses the broader public, Howey and Zhao are the sudden, fresh young faces of environmental activism.
There are some signs they are not alone. Young people and women living in cities are increasingly aware of global climate issues and China’s place at the centre of them, according to a recent study in the journal The China Quarterly.
“In China, the good news is that compared to the rest of the population, younger Chinese tend to be more concerned about climate change,” said Liu Xinsheng, the lead author of the report. “The bad news is that overall, average Chinese climate change concern is low relative to many countries around the world.”
Zhao’s passion for climate issues was triggered by the documentary Under the Dome, which he watched four years ago while studying engineering at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.
The film inspired him to set up an NGO to raise awareness of the climate crisis on campus and create a platform disseminating information on WeChat.
“I found something I could do for society,” Zhao said of his awakening after seeing the film. “In my last year [at university] I felt that if I did not communicate, did not advocate for what I thought was true, then powerful [other ideas] would dominate society.”
Under the Dome, an examination of the policy failures and personal effects of air pollution on the mainland, appeared online for several days in February and was viewed by as many as 300 million people before being banned.
It is unlikely there will be climate strikes on the mainland like those being staged in the west. The country passed a law after the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989 that imposed strict conditions on public gatherings and forced groups to register with the police if they want to stage a protest.
Organisations connected to the government, such as the China Youth Climate Action Network (CYCAN), founded in 2007, are one of the official routes young people can take to raise climate awareness. The group holds events and educational training to help raise awareness of climate issues among the country’s young people.
Zheng Xiaowen, CYCAN’s executive director, said: “I don’t think student protests are a helpful solution to the problem in China. Because of the unique cultural and political circumstances, Chinese people tend to resort to more moderate ways to voice their concerns.
“We need to advocate actions against climate change in ways that best suit China. For us, the best way is to work with the government and help come up with plans to tackle those issues together.”
While small steps are being made, the lack of awareness of climate change in the country is alarming, Liu said, because the mainland is the world’s leading greenhouse gas emitter and one of the countries that could be badly affected by extreme weather events and rising sea levels, with knock-on effects for the economy and health.
“China has top-down policymaking,” Liu said. “It is hard to imagine that without public awareness and concern for climate issues, that government policies will be successful.”
The inertia bothers Howey, but she believes there is hope: “It is frustrating to me, but I’m still alive and have the passion for change.”