The high cost of low carbon

Many people in China want to live more environmentally friendly lifestyles. But reducing carbon footprints can be expensive, writes Huo Weiya, and support for the effort is lacking.

One of my chinadialogue colleagues in Beijing recently bought a Philips energy-saving light bulb to replace a standard one. He was happy with his choice. It may have cost 30 yuan (just under US$4.50) – ten times the price of a filament bulb — but he wanted to save energy as part of his low-carbon lifestyle. And according to the retailer, he would save, in the long run, much more than the 30 yuan he was spending.

Yet only one month later, his expensive light bulb blew, before he had saved even a fraction of the purchase price. Will he stick to his high-cost, low-carbon, lifestyle?

China’s environmental organisations have started to advocate low-carbon lifestyles and the reduction of carbon footprints to help combat climate change. But they have overlooked one fact: in China, low-carbon living comes at a high cost.

It means buying energy-saving bulbs and appliances, and environmentally friendly building materials and daily goods. Cost can no longer be the sole criterion for purchases. An energy-saving and environmentally friendly product is more expensive than a standard alternative – whether it’s a simple light bulb or the house it illuminates. For average consumers, even buying an ordinary home is a huge burden. How can we persuade ordinary people to opt for an energy-saving residence? This is not a trend they can afford to follow; perhaps this fashion is only for the rich.

Most consumers today do not cause huge carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Their responsibility lies not in choosing a low-carbon lifestyle today, but in avoiding a high-carbon life in the future. The principle of “common but differentiated responsibility” – a cornerstone of sustainable development — can be applied here as well.

In China, low-carbon living still is hampered by a lack of social infrastructure. Even if your salary allows you to make that choice, nobody is there to help you implement it.

Consider energy-saving homes. You need to find out whether or not the developer has used natural materials wherever possible; how effective the insulation is; and what the green credentials of installed equipment are. You can read up a little, but you’ll still be lucky to avoid being baffled by the developers’ marketing. Many so-called energy-saving buildings are nothing of the sort, and some are even more energy-hungry than the average home – as Li Taige warned in his article “Energy-efficient buildings? Not always”, on chinadialogue last August.

And if you buy one of those energy-saving homes, you’ll need to learn about environmentally friendly decoration. Green building materials are more expensive, and companies may substitute cheaper alternatives and skim off the extra profit. You’ll need to choose insulating flooring, windows that make full use of sunlight, water-saving toilets, environmentally friendly paint, and more – and this is hardly your area of expertise, is it?

And then, it’s time to pick up some energy-efficient appliances. In 2005, China implemented a system of energy-efficiency labelling. As of March 1, twenty-one categories of product — including electric induction cookers and water heaters — will be required to carry those labels. So this, at least, will simplify the decision-making progress – or at least it will seem to. You may well find that your new washing machine, despite its label, does not actually save any electricity. There is no effective oversight of the labelling system, and some manufacturers are taking advantage, making false claims about their products. You may think you are enjoying a low-carbon life, all the while causing high levels of emissions.

With all these problems, choosing a low-carbon life and investing time and money could still lead to you being cheated by the market. Low-carbon lifestyles now, like the first generation of biofuels, are simply the transfer – or even increase — of carbon emissions, not their reduction.

My colleague says he will buy energy-saving bulbs again. Very good, but that’s just a 30-yuan bulb. What will he do when it comes to a one-million-yuan home? 

Is leading a low-carbon lifestyle too expensive, particularly for ordinary Chinese people? Do you buy environmentally friendly goods and services despite the cost? If not, would you switch to more eco-friendly products and practices if the costs were lower? How important is this lifestyle decision to you?

Huo Weiya is operations and development manager for chinadialogue in Beijing and former editor-in-chief of Environmental Culture Newsletter, published by China’s Green Student Forum, an environmental NGO established in 1996.