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Low-carbon lifestyle in China: fad or return to tradition?

Lin Hui always checks the small tag attached to clothing when he shops. He wants to see what kind of fabrics have been used.

"I prefer cotton clothing," explained the Beijing-based website editor. "I heard the production of polyester fabrics consumes too much oil and energy, which is not green."

Whether cotton fabric is truly greener, or more environmentally beneficial, than polyesters remains a subject of debate. But Lin's attitude is clear - he wants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions such as carbon dioxide.

"What I do may be trivial, but if everyone tries to live a low-carbon life, the result will be really big," said the 35-year-old.

Just this year, the low-carbon lifestyle, or Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability (LOHAS), suddenly became trendy in China, particularly among young urbanites, Lin said.

He works for ditan360.com, a non-profit, environmental website set up early this year. It provides all kinds of information about carbon offset, including government policies, tips on how to save energy and stories about celebrities "going green".

 

CATCHING ON

Lin isn't the only one trying to improve China's environment by monitoring his carbon footprint.

On the popular social networking website, Douban (www.douban.com), established two years ago, more than a dozen environmental discussion groups have been set up.

In one group, called "Low Carbon Living", a carbon calculator is available online. People are using it to measure the amount of greenhouse gases they produce during certain activities. For example, a family of three consumes 3,000 kwh of electricity a year. They would need 22 trees to offset 2,355 kg of CO2.

"We are both the cause and victims of global warming, so it's everyone's responsibility to reduce carbon emission," reads a message posted on the group's home page.

Cyberspace information is translating into real life practice. Li Ling uses stairs more frequently than the elevator because she believes it keeps her fit while saving electricity.

"Sometimes I do want to use the elevator because I am tired or in a hurry. Afterwards, I remind myself about my carbon footprint. Then I may do something to offset it, for example, eating less meat, buying local products or taking public transportation," says the 24-year-old who lives in Shanghai.

Businesses are also beginning to pick up on the trend.

This Sept., Ctrip (www.ctrip.com), an airline ticket website, launched a service for clients to offset carbon dioxide released during each domestic plane trip they take.

For example, a single flight from Beijing to Shanghai can produce 222.4 kg of carbon dioxide. Three new trees should be planted to neutralize that carbon footprint.

Ctrip clients can exchange 5,000 credits, which are earned by flying15,000 kilometers, for one tree. It will be planted by volunteers of a Shanghai-based environmental group, "Roots and Shoots", in a desert area in north China's Inner Mongolia throughout April, 2009.

The service, the first of this kind in China, has received a positive response from passengers, according to Liu Hongbing, Ctrip's client service manager. In the past three months, 2,300 people exchanged credits for trees.

Another business, URBN, a boutique hotel in Shanghai, opened one year ago. It is also trying to capitalize on the increasing popularity of "going green." It is marketed as China's first carbon-neutral hotel.

Management says it tracks all energy consumed by the property- including staff commutes, food and beverage delivery and the energy used by each guest.

According to an agreement signed in May 2007, URBN will purchase carbon credits from Emissions Zero, an international intermediary which invests in local "green" energy development and emission reduction projects, to offset the hotel's carbon footprint.

URBN "hopes to set an example for other businesses and industries" in China, the fastest growing emitter of greenhouse gases, said Geneva Holden, business development manager.

She added, market response has been amazing because guests, mostly foreigners, like the idea of sustainability. But being environmentally friendly doesn't come cheap - staying in the hotel's penthouse room can cost 4,000 yuan (584 U.S. dollars) per night, almost a monthly salary for an office worker in Shanghai.

With expensive flights and hotel stays, most people in China can't afford the new trend of "going green."

That's where the government comes in.

ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY

In order to curb air pollution and road congestion during the Beijing Olympics, the Chinese capital enacted a two month ban on nearly half of the city's 3.5 million cars.

The action helped eliminate 120,000 tonnes of pollutants, or about 63 percent of total vehicular emissions before the ban, according to figures published by the Beijing Municipal Commission of Development and Reform in mid-November.

"The effect was obvious, so many people want the measures to continue," said Zhou Wanjun, who also works for ditan360.com.

In fact, they were extended. Under the new ban, which started Oct. 11, 70 percent of government vehicles and all corporate and private cars in Beijing take turns staying off the road one day during the work week.

The environmental impact is yet to be totaled, but some residents said they see a difference and want to do more.

"Now I use the subway and a bicycle to get to work. If I purchase an apartment in the future, I don't want it to be too large. Affordability is a major concern, but if my lifestyle is good for the environment, why not?" said Zhou.

Other governmental departments are also trying new environmentally friendly policies for the first time.

A three-day seminar, sponsored by the State Forestry Administration (SFA) two weeks ago in Beijing, captured newspaper headlines, not only because of what participants spoke about but also what they did.

Besides learning about carbon credits and the forestry industry, people decided to neutralize the 82.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide produced during the meeting. They donated 20,000 yuan (2,920 U.S. dollars) towards a tree-planting project on the outskirts of Beijing, which covers 1.3 hectares.

Cui Dapeng, an expert on sustainability at the Chinese Academy of Social Science, the country's leading think-tank, said these are all good attempts to raise public awareness, but more needs to be done to prove whether government actions are indeed practical and useful on larger scales.

"We are just at the starting point of building a low-carbon society. We need overall participation, from high-ranking leadership down to the public," said Cui.

The Beijing Olympic Games in August played a major role in popularizing low-carbon ideas because many measures were taken to make the global event a "green Olympics," he added.

CHALLENGES AHEAD

But in what demographic did that environmental message sink in?

In a country of 1.3 billion people, not everyone does what Zhou, Lin Hui and Li Ling do.

An online survey of 300 people, conducted by ditan360.com in April, showed that only 16.5 percent of Chinese know about the concept of carbon offset.

"Low carbon? What are you talking about?" asks Beijing cab driver Liu Yong. "I've heard about global warming. But is it really caused by carbon dioxide? I'm not sure."

To Liu, a low-carbon life seems like just a fad, irrelevant to himself because the idea is borrowed from Europe and America. Others argue the concept is more like a return to traditions.

"To live a simple and frugal life has always been considered a virtue in our culture. We should have kept it," says Lin Hui. "Nowadays tradition has been eroded by consumerism as we earn more money. People want to live in bigger houses and drive bigger cars."

Used to be known as "the Kingdom of bicycles", China now has become the most sought after market for global auto companies.

There used to be an estimated 10 million bicycles in Beijing, nearly one for each person, before the city's streets and Hutong lanes became congested with cars. Now, about 1,200 new vehicles take to the roads everyday.

"As a developing country we also have the duty to prevent global warming. That's a duty for all on this planet. If all Chinese live like Americans, we may need five earths," said Cui.

This reflects a serious environmental challenge for China. As the most populous nation on the planet with world's fastest growing economy, it has become the second biggest emitter of greenhouse gases.

"I hope we eventually return back to the essence of the Chinese philosophy - harmony between nature and humans," said Lin Hui.

Cui said, while it is very important for individuals to be environmentally savvy, policy makers should play a major role in guiding the trend, from production to consumption.

"We need incentive policies to encourage technical innovation and the use of environmentally friendly products."

Electronic giant Panasonic estimated in 2006 that if energy-saving lights were used in all new offices buildings in Beijing, 78.51 million kwh of electricity can be saved a year. That equals 58,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide.

Jiang Kejun, an energy expert at the National Development and Reform Commission, did similar research. It showed annual electricity consumption at a three-person household in Beijing can be decreased from 3,000 kwh to 1,500 kwh if adequate energy-saving appliances and measures are adopted.

However, only 38 percent of households and 48.7 percent of offices used energy-saving lights, according to a 2007 survey conducted by the China Youth Daily.

It concluded the biggest challenge in promoting the use of such products, is cost. An energy-saving bulb is priced at 20 yuan (2.9U.S. dollars), while an ordinary incandescent bulb costs just 2 yuan.

Experts suggest the government and businesses should find solutions to give incentives to consumers. Companies with products that are not "green" should be charged fees to compensate for pollution.

China did enact a rule in June which charges consumers between 20-40 cents for one plastic bag.

Jiang said, that's a start. In the future, he would also like to see all products sold in China labeled with information about how much energy was used to make them.

The ongoing financial crisis may slowdown global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as governments and businesses may lack funds to support new technology development and use, Cui said.

Which means a low-carbon lifestyle for all Chinese might continue to be just a trend within certain groups.

"Undoubtedly low-carbon development is a correct direction because in the long term, climate change will be the top challenge for humanity," Cui added.

 
 
 Source : Xinhua  Editor: Dong Wenwen
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