Five years after Paris, what do young Chinese people think about climate change?

Young Chinese people recognise the gravity of climate change but are patchy on the details, finds a new survey
<p>Wu Guanzhuo, a 17-year-old Chinese environmental campaigner, attends a discussion as a guest speaker at the environmental protection club of a high school in Shenyang, Liaoning province. (Image: Sylvia Buchholz / Alamy)</p>

Wu Guanzhuo, a 17-year-old Chinese environmental campaigner, attends a discussion as a guest speaker at the environmental protection club of a high school in Shenyang, Liaoning province. (Image: Sylvia Buchholz / Alamy)

A Chinese person born in 1995 would have been six when China’s entry into the World Trade Organization sparked an economic boom. At 13, they would have watched – along with a global audience – the Beijing Olympics. Turning 18, they would have experienced the nationwide smog of 2013, and now, aged 25, they will be dealing with education and employment uncertainty caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Barring the unexpected, at the age of 35 they will see the world pass a critical warming threshold – 1.5C. Then, a life that is more affected by heatwaves, extreme precipitation and sea-level rise. They are likely to witness a “new normal” of no coral reefs and an Arctic that is ice-free. They are likely to spend their middle age working in the full swing of an economic and energy transition, and to retire as a historic moment arrives – carbon neutrality in China.

What does that person know of climate change today? And as the generation that will work to implement the Paris Agreement and China’s carbon neutrality pledge, what do they think of their mission? A recent survey of the attitudes of young Chinese people towards climate change offers some answers.

Concerned, but not well-informed

The study, carried out by the China Youth Climate Action Network, surveyed over 5,000 people between the ages of 18-24 at universities across the country, including top-tier and lower-tier establishments and vocational schools. It carried out small group discussions with 37 of the people surveyed. This is one of the most detailed surveys of climate awareness among young Chinese people to date.

The vast majority (84%) were aware of the gravity of climate change, and over 40% described it as the most serious global issue today, followed by social inequality (12.9%) and public health (8.3%). This is particularly remarkable, coming in the year of the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, although 60% said they were “quite familiar with climate change”, those respondents may not have a particularly accurate understanding of the issues.

A large majority agreed that “every use of coal, oil and natural gas affects climate change”. But over two thirds said the false statement “climate change is caused by a hole in the atmosphere” was true or possibly true. Though some contradictory beliefs clearly exist, this age group is better informed about climate change than any other in China.

Global governance and China’s role

Despite being born between 1995 and 2002, the respondents were less aware of the 2015 Paris Agreement than the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. One explanation for this is that the earlier treaty appears in some middle school textbooks, while respondents would have heard about the more recent agreement as a news report from a far-off country.

Despite this, respondents held views about some key climate governance issues. They generally support climate justice, recognising the need to be responsible towards future generations while enjoying the benefits of development. A majority of 95% agree with the idea that “when creating emissions, it is necessary to be responsible, and take account of future generations”, with 31.6% saying “there is no need currently to worry about energy issues for future generations”.

Almost 60% said countries have different environmental responsibilities according to specific circumstances – the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” is firmly held.

Most respondents said China played the most important role in concluding international climate deals, followed by the EU and the US. At home, they approve most of the government’s work to restore forest, grassland and wetland ecologies, and on energy diversification, and would like to see tougher limits on greenhouse gas emissions.

Taking climate responsibility

As the generation that will do the work of implementing China’s 2060 carbon neutrality pledge, how do these young people integrate climate change, energy saving and emissions reduction into their actions?

The results of the survey reflect current lifestyles of young Chinese people, with 67% shopping online at least once a month, and only 1.5% never doing so.

Another habit typical of young people is ordering food deliveries. A 2020 report from delivery firm Meituan showed those born between 1990 and 2010 account for over 60% of customers, and over 70% of orders.

Although online shopping and take-outs are now normal lifestyles choices, these young people are willing to work for a low-carbon alternative: 70% have tried reusing or recycling delivery packaging. In focus groups, participants complained that low quality packaging prevented repeated use – indicating a need for improvements on the supply side.

They are also more willing to pay for greener options: 68% said they would pay higher prices for environmentally friendly products, and 62% were willing to pay more taxes to help protect the environment; 57% would lower their standard of living for the same goal.

But the more expensive a low-carbon lifestyle, the less enthusiasm: 55% were willing to pay one-tenth more for a climate-friendly product, but only 3% would pay three-tenths or more. This may be due to a lack of economic independence and limited purchasing power.

When it comes to acting on climate change, young Chinese people are most likely to volunteer, followed by making donations via official channels. Most of their activity is relatively shallow, and they are unlikely to organise as part of their generation. “Young people rarely identify themselves as part of a larger ‘Chinese youth’ and there is a lack of routes to group action and influence,” said Bai Yunan, report author. Rather than the model of activism promoted by Greta Thunberg, young Chinese people are more likely to seek out smaller changes to their own lives.

The climate awareness and actions of this generation will influence China’s climate footprint for many years to come, as well as the country’s route to peak carbon dioxide emissions and onwards to carbon neutrality. They may be only now leaving university and stepping into wider society, but China’s hopes for the future rest with them.