Turning point in Tianjin

Dozens of Chinese civil-society groups came together to host events at this month’s climate talks in Tianjin. Programme coordinator Lu Sicheng tells Meng Si it was a historic milestone.

Lu Sicheng was the coordinator of “Green China, Race to the Future”, a series events organised by Chinese NGOs at the UN-led climate talks in Tianjin, sponsored by Global Climate Change Alliance. Lu was formerly director of Greenpeace China and secretary of Alashan Society of Entrepreneurs and Ecology. This month, he was named as one of Hong Kong’s Ten Outstanding Young Persons, an annual award from Junior Chamber International.

Meng Si: How would you judge the NGO activities in Tianjin overall? What were the highlights and the problems?

Lu Sicheng: This was the first United Nations climate-change conference to be held in China. Sixty Chinese NGOs participated, and one of the highlights was the scale, the diversity, the closeness of coordination and the pace of events that we saw.

We only learned the talks were to be held in Tianjin in early August. In less than eight weeks, Chinese NGOs organised 20 events and published a position paper on the civil society response to climate change. We brought everyone’s original plans together and combined several events, such as a fringe meeting on corporate innovation jointly held by WWF, the Institute for Environment and Development (IED) and Alashan Society of Entrepreneurs and Ecology, and another meeting on impacts of and responses to climate change, organised by Shanshui Conservation Center, IED, Oxfam and Green River.

Our events won praise from some of our international colleagues. For example, an employee of the Global Climate Change Alliance said that “the Chinese NGO events had been better than those of the local NGOs at all previous talks.”

MS: What challenges were exposed during the coordination process?

LS: There were many. The biggest difficulty was a lack of knowledge and experience about climate change, so although the NGOs did their best to show what they can do, there wasn’t enough genuine participation, and not enough was done to bridge the gap between public participation and policy advocacy.

The first thing to become clear was that the NGOs day-to-day activities are not sufficiently solid. Chinese NGOs have successfully persuaded the public and government to make changes. For example, in 2004 they ran a campaign calling on people to save energy by setting air-conditioners no lower than 26 degrees Celsius, and in 2007 the government made this a rule for all public buildings. No-car days are another successful example. But since this started in 2004, how many people have actually participated? How much CO2 has been avoided? There aren’t any figures.

Again, many NGOs advocate the use of energy-saving light bulbs, solar-water heaters and solar or wind-powered streetlights – but there are no figures on the effect, the take-up. Does China have experience or technology that can be applied elsewhere? I think the work of the NGOs could be more concrete.

Although there are successful cases, the scope and sustainability of civil-society work, and depth of public participation, are inadequate. There’s also a lack of communication when it comes to south-south [developing world] cooperation. You can say that the results have been mixed.

We also found that local NGOs have done a lot of good work in remote areas. A forestry project from Shanshui Conservation Center and a waste-to-energy scheme run by the Wuhu Ecology Center are examples. But there is still nowhere near enough good practice.

MS: Climate-change negotiations are very complex. How good are Chinese NGOs at following the process? How many are working on this?

LS: The ability of domestic NGOs to participate in negotiations is still very weak. In total, Chinese NGOs have no more than five members capable of following the negotiations, and nobody does this full time. These organisations need to study the negotiation process. There’s a lot of learning to do and they can’t expect to have any influence without putting in the time.

This also relates to climate activists’ view of their own work. It’s all too easy for environmentalists in China to regard the practical stuff they do among communities as the “real” work, compared with the more abstract tasks of following and analysing negotiations. But in reality these are connected. Problems you meet at a local level might be the result of government policy, and if policy doesn’t change, the root causes can’t be tackled. And sometimes government policy is linked to the international negotiations.

An example is public opposition to waste incinerators. On the surface, this is a local problem, but there are global factors there. Why is China building so many incinerators? It’s connected to the increase of global consumerism and production of waste, and the fact that incinerator manufacturers in developed countries need to find new markets. And aren’t the flood victims in Hainan also the victims of the failure of earlier climate talks to reach agreement?

So, local issues are linked up with national policy and international talks. But Chinese NGOs separate these out – they haven’t made the link.

MS: Is the lack of Chinese NGO work on macro-policy and international negotiations due to a lack of confidence in their ability to have influence from the bottom-up?

LS: I don’t think so. Cases like the 26 degree air-conditioning limit and no-car days show that Chinese NGO activity can change national policy. In recent years, we’ve seen more opportunities for civil-society groups to work with government to promote resource conservation and environmental protection.

Talking to NGOs in Tianjin, vice chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission Xie Zhenhua said that the efforts of the whole of society would be needed if China is to build a resource-conserving and environmentally-friendly society, and that he hopes NGOs will play an important role. He said he hoped to discuss responses to climate change with domestic NGOs frequently and to hear their opinions on government work.

A lot of cases show this is true. For example, Ma Jun’s Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs produces a water pollution map based on the principle of open information, and this allows the public to get more involved.

MS: When it comes to climate negotiations, one of the roles of NGOs is to act as a link between the public and the leaders – for example using public demands to push the talks in a certain direction. But even the numerous events at Copenhagen last year failed to impact on the summit.

LS: The effects of that sort of pressure aren’t necessarily seen at the time – sometimes it just plants the seeds. Copenhagen was a failure in terms of reaching agreement, but it was an unprecedented success in public education. A lot of media outlets now have special editions or sections [devoted to climate change] and the public is watching the issues closely.

Some critics have said that Chinese NGOs only went to Copenhagen for the sake of appearances and that there was no actual participation. This may be partly true. But if that first step is not made, further steps cannot be taken. It’s like a snowball. Without Copenhagen, we wouldn’t have had this “Green China, Race to the Future” series of events in Tianjin.

MS: What drove you to accept this role, as coordinator of these events?

LS: I was motivated by two concerns. The first was that this was the first UN climate conference to be held in China, and if Chinese NGOs did not overcome their differences and participate in a meaningful manner, many opportunities for participation in future events would be lost. And second, there is a lack of understanding about China’s circumstances in the international community – and when they [the NGOs] express their opinions, it is not always done appropriately or effectively. If that led to extreme reactions, it could also damage future participation.

MS: Did coordinating the NGO activities require a lot of communication with government?

LS: This was the biggest UN meeting to be held in China since the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, and at that time there were virtually no NGOs in China. This time around, we had 60 organisations active at the venue, along with two or three hundred foreign NGOs. This was historic – a milestone for civil society.

So I did communicate a lot with the authorities. To a large degree, I was relying on a personal level of trust built up with those authorities in my previous work.


Meng Si is associate editor in chinadialogue’s Beijing office. 

Homepage image from Greenpeace shows Xie Zhenhua inspecting NGO displays in Tianjin.