Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University is well-known for its trees and lawns, but visit today and you might find yourself appreciating another kind of “green”. Bins to deposit batteries for recycling are dotted around, while paper recycling facilities are seen all about campus. There are regular second-hand markets where books, including unwanted textbooks, find new homes. Invitations to save water and electricity are posted next to taps and light switches.
Environmental activities have become ever more frequent at Tsinghua over the last few years, and they now account for a significant proportion of the campus cultural life. “Green Tsinghua day” is in its tenth year, and includes exhibitions, lectures and events encouraging reduction in plastic bag usage and paper recycling. It has had a lasting effect on thousands of students; efforts by student green groups have succeeded in persuading many students to make changes to their day-to-day lifestyles.
At Peking University, another of China’s leading universities, the environment is also a key concern. The Peking University Environment and Development Association is China’s longest-established campus green group. It has been involved in awareness-raising, educational and practical activities for 16 years. In October 2006 they formed the first youth group in China to focus on climate change: the Clean Development Mechanism Club, and produced the “Handbook for Youth Action on Climate Change”. On Earth Day this year, the group surveyed climate-change awareness across 19 Chinese universities, at the same time as it organised activities to educate students about the causes and consequences of climate change, its urgency and the students’ own responsibility. With support from the China Environmental Protection Foundation, the group is currently carrying out a campus energy audit to understand the contribution universities make to greenhouse-gas emissions.
Beijing Normal University has also featured a range of green activities run by student environmental groups, including fashion shows with environmental themes such as “the atmosphere”, “forests” and “water”.
Meanwhile, Jiaotong University Student Association in Shanghai left campus to visit the city’s most polluted district: Shenzhuang, and take the message of environmental protection into communities and schools.
Beijing Jiaotong University has been promoting energy conservation and saving water since 1987, and has adopted a range of technologies to achieve this end. In all, the university says, it has saved 5 million cubic metres of water and 1.3 million kilowatt hours of electricity. This tradition is an important part of what students are taught and are encouraged to sustain, and it has become an important part of the university’s culture.
Some universities are even making these ideals a compulsory part of student life. Zhejiang Forestry Institute has far stronger rules on the use of water, power, air-conditioning and public spaces than many other institutions.
Now, whether you are at Fudan University, Nanjing University or Xi’an Jiaotong University, almost all of China’s universities have students working to promote environmental awareness, persuading hundreds of thousands of fellow students to make changes to their lifestyles.
Active student environmental groups in China number 2,500, according to incomplete statistics. And they are linking up, exchanging experiences and organising regional – and even national – events. For example:
• In March, Campus green groups in Chongqing joined forces to publish guidelines for student groups working on climate-change issues, with the aim of launching large-scale activities to promote water conservation, energy efficiency and emissions reduction.
• A number of Chinese universities, including Wuhan University and Renmin University, held a conference in Wuhan in June to promote on-campus green activities.
• In July, the Shanghai Live Earth concert became a platform on which the China University Students Environmental Organisation Forum brought together student green groups to make a statement on the need to combat climate change.
• Students from nine universities in Beijing used their summer vacation to teach cadres, farmers and teachers in rural areas about environmental technology.
• In August, groups including Peking University’s Clean Development Mechanism Club and the China University Students Environmental Organisation Forum formed the China Youth Climate Change Action Network to guide student and youth projects on environmental issues. Twenty-three of these groups are developing a database of power use and emissions on China’s campuses.
• Eleven universities and research institutes, including Beijing Forestry University, North-Eastern Forestry University and Nanjing Forestry University, in October held a competition to increase understanding of forestry’s relation to climate-change issues.
Hope for the future
From energy efficiency to mitigating climate change, China’s students are looking for solutions. A lack of resources and experience, fundraising, management and publicity do present problems, and it is often difficult for groups to feel they have a lasting and wide-ranging impact. If they continue to care and to act, however, progress will continue.
Chinese people sometimes refer to university students as “flowers of the motherland.” When our students graduate and leave university, their green lifestyles and concern for the environment will influence society as a whole. Let us hope that the Chinese people, already enjoying the fruits of economic growth, will then come to live more environmentally friendly lives and show concern for the worsening ecology of China and the world – and work to find solutions.
Li Peng is a Masters student at Tsinghua University.