Chinese students take stand on environment
Students across China are marching in an effort to mobilize the public to engage in environmental issues.
President Obama is on a tour of Asia, which will include high-level talks on climate change in China. China's already feeling the effects of a warming world. And while the government positions itself for the upcoming Copenhagen climate summit, some younger Chinese are looking for ways they can address the country's biggest environmental problems.
More than a thousand students are traveling seven routes across China, highlighting energy efficiency and renewable sources of power along the way. It's known as the Green Long March.
"Living on Earth's" Elise Potaka joined one group of marchers in China's Inner Mongolia, and filed this report:
In a small refuge of green in the otherwise heavily industrial Chinese town of Baotou, a group of 15 university students carrying banners winds its way through a local park. "Green Long March, save energy, reduce emissions" they chant.
The students are taking part in the northern-most route of what's become an annual pilgrimage for China's eco-conscious students -- the Green Long March. Over the next two weeks, they'll wind their way across Inner Mongolia, researching different industries and case studies, and promoting environmental protection.
With an eye on Copenhagen, this year's march has focused on promoting energy efficiency and renewables. In the centre of the park, the students set up information stands and a cube which represents the amount of CO2 the average Chinese person emits every four hours. Park-goers – young and old - gather round; the students urge them to choose public transportation over private cars, plant trees, and use energy saving light bulbs.
Some in the park are not convinced that "laobaixing" or everyday people can really make a difference. China's population is just too big, they say.
Student leader, Liu Shiyi, counters that this is one of the country's greatest assets.
"China's large population can be seen as a disadvantage, but it also means that if we all work together, we have a lot of power to protect the environment," said Shiyi [Speaking Chinese].
Pointing to the brown haze over Baotou, and the factories in the distance, onlooker, Mr. Zhang, says pollution is inevitable as China develops.
"In western countries, it's very common to ban private cars in some parts of the city, and only let buses or police cars move freely," said Zhang [Speaking Chinese]. "But this is the outcome of a country's development, and China is just at the beginning. You can't stop these sorts of things now."
But Miki, a journalism student from Beijing disagrees that nothing can be done. [Speaking Chinese] "Sometimes I think the environment and the economy are in conflict, but our economy has already reached a certain level, and we all understand the importance of environmental protection. Yes, problems exist, but the first step is to realize this and then we can improve the situation. So that's why our activity today is important."
The Green Long March, now in its third year, is not just about increasing public awareness, it also involves researching different industries and case studies. Most of the students in this group are studying science, and will go on to work in China's heavy industries – the source of much of the country's pollution. Industry accounts for around a third of China's coal use, as well a quarter of its water consumption. Outdated or inefficient technologies continue to hamper environmental progress.
A few hours out of Baotou, in the rolling grasslands of the Inner Mongolian steppe, the students arrive at a wind farm. Against a backdrop of massive wind turbines, they ask the owner detailed questions about wind energy.
Many of the marchers, like 21-year-old, Liu Shiyi, see the march as a way to find out more about green technologies, which might be able to make a difference in their future workplaces.
"After I graduate I might work in a large-scale steel factory," he said [Speaking Chinese]. "Today's research will be really useful for me in the future because I've discovered that although many steel factories are using technology to reduce their pollution, it's still not ideal. If I do enter this industry, I hope I can find a find a scientific way to maintain production output as well as protecting the environment."
Next stop is Quan Feng Village, where the students survey a biogas project that was awarded a small grant as part of the Green Long March. They take detailed notes as village head, Chen Yong Lia, describes the benefits of using pig waste to generate biogas for cooking and heating.
"In the past using coal, we would consume at least 3 tons per year to warm the house and cook food," said Chen [Speaking Chinese]. "Now we just need one ton. We also used to burn the wood and corn stalks for energy, but since using biogas we can mulch the stalks or sell them as animal feed."
Villager Lu Haixia turns on the kitchen's gas cooker to demonstrate the biogas. The students have a lot of questions. Is there any smell, they ask? Does it still work in winter? How much money has the system saved residents? They find that the majority of villagers are using the biogas and are happy with the system.
A bus sing-a-long is just what the group needs to relax at the end of what's been a busy day. With more than 5,000 students involved more broadly in Green Long March activities, participants, like 22-year-old management student Zuo Ran, are quick to point out that they're not a minority among people their age.
"The people around me have all started to consider the environment," said Zuo [Speaking Chinese]. "For example, we live in a dormitory. If one person forgets to turn off a tap, someone else will quickly do it. While it's only a really small action, the important thing is that everyone feels a sense of responsibility."
Back in Beijing, at the closing ceremony for the green long march, Zhang Long Shuai, from the Inner Mongolia University of Science and Technology, says it's important that the Copenhagen climate summit has some real outcomes.
"Our carbon emissions have already exceeded the safe level of 350 parts per million," said Zhang [Speaking Chinese]. "I hope the government does more to advocate public participation in environmental protection, energy-saving and emission reducing activities, and that they implement the policies so it's not just a conference, or an empty slogan."
Now back in class, the students are busy telling others about what they experienced on their green long march. They hope to draw in new recruits not only to their environmental network, but to the philosophy that underpins it.
Hosted by Steve Curwood, "Living on Earth" is an award-winning environmental news program that delves into the leading issues affecting the world we inhabit. More "Living on Earth."