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What it’s like to try to live green in China

China promotes a green lifestyle for its citizens

For the past six years, Yu Yuan has done everything she can to live a life that does not produce non-degradable waste. She takes her own coffee cup and chopsticks to cafes and restaurants, she buys second-hand clothes and she never orders food. During the day she has a shop in an old alley in Beijing that sells household goods. None are disposable plastic and customers do not receive a bag.

“It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible, because every Chinese used to have a low-carbon lifestyle when the country was less developed,” said Yu, 30. “I will find ways to make it happen.”

China set a goal two years ago to reach peak emissions by 2030 and make them zero by 2060, and one of the government’s 10 key missions official roadmap to achieve those goals is a “green lifestyle for all people.” Designed to increase people’s awareness of their personal carbon footprints, it encourages the promotion of low-emission products, better labeling and more climate education. In practice, however, it is not easy for Chinese consumers to make informed choices about what they are buying, as the country lags behind in places like Europe in demanding and policing product information.

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“China needs to build a legal system to promote certification of green products and ensure that the system has strong legal support,” said Wang Jianming, a professor at Zhejiang University of Finance and Economics.

Take shopping, for example. The sector in China is rapidly moving online, making low-carbon purchases more difficult. Last year it was expected to be the online share of retail sales more than half the total in the country, up from only 20% in 2016. In the US it is about 15% and even less in Western Europe. All of that delivered goods generated 9.4 million tons of packaging in China in 2018, according to Greenpeace, and the amount could increase to 41 million tons by 2025, equivalent to Japan’s total annual waste.

Every year, China’s leading e-commerce platforms, inclusive Taobao.com en JD.com, promote their green efforts, encourage sellers to use more recyclable packaging and less plastic tape. However, the pace of industry expansion is overwhelming and while there is no penalty for overpacking, sellers risk losing money if poorly protected goods are damaged during transit.

On Meituan and Ele.me, China’s largest online food ordering platforms, customers can now book a “green order” by opting for a disposable cutlery. However, even this small concession sometimes fails, with some restaurants at least simply adding the plastic utensils.

Ellery Li, a project consultant at China Youth Climate Action Network in Beijing, says this is one example of where individual action can bring change.

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“It’s a common debate – how much do personal choices really make a difference in climate,” Li said. “Yes, changing large institutions like the energy infrastructure is the most important thing, but actions and awareness at the individual level are also a kind of voices that can push companies to change.”

He said since the food ordering apps added the ability for customers to complain when restaurants put cutlery in green orders, he noted that more stores are paying attention.

Unfortunately for environmentally conscious consumers in China, it is not easy to find information about the carbon footprint of most products. China launched a green product verification system in 2016, but it only covers 19 categories until now. The standards are unclear and the supervision is poor, which makes it difficult for customers to check whether the claims on the emission of companies are true.

In a 2021 survey in China, 72% of respondents said they try to buy from environmentally friendly companies, but 41% found the lack of available green options the biggest barrier. Another survey showed that about two-thirds of people found it difficult to say whether a product is really as low-carbon as companies claim.

Online markets are making efforts to change. Alibaba’s Tmall.com added a green label in April for some energy-efficient household appliances, providing emissions information for some air conditioners, washing machines and other products, promising to add more. Alibaba, which has promised to reduce 1.5 gigatons of emissions by 2035 from its entire supply chain, said digital platforms “could play a pivotal role in the transition to the low-carbon circular economy.”

But for individuals like Yu, the changes are too slow. She feels that her best option is simply to buy less. Her wardrobe now has no more than 50 items. They stopped buying bottled water six years ago. She estimates that she has produced less than 0.5kg of non-recyclable waste in the past six months.

Yu’s store, The Bulk House, attracts a mix of customers, from young hipsters to older shoppers who live only an hour away. At the entrance, Yu posted her story along with six handwritten cards repeating the maxim of French-American environmental activist Bea Johnson: “Reject, reduce, reuse, repair, recycle, rot.”

“There are a lot of temptations for people to buy more, so my lifestyle is a bit like swimming against the tide,” Yu said. “But I’m fine with that. Progress can only be made if everyone does a little bit.”

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What it’s like to try to live green in China

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