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The high cost of low carbon

Many people in China want to live more environmentally friendly lifestyles. But reducing carbon footprints can be expensive, writes Huo Weiya, and support for the effort is lacking.

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One of my chinadialogue colleagues in Beijing recently bought a Philips energy-saving light bulb to replace a standard one. He was happy with his choice. It may have cost 30 yuan (just under US$4.50) – ten times the price of a filament bulb -- but he wanted to save energy as part of his low-carbon lifestyle. And according to the retailer, he would save, in the long run, much more than the 30 yuan he was spending.

Yet only one month later, his expensive light bulb blew, before he had saved even a fraction of the purchase price. Will he stick to his high-cost, low-carbon, lifestyle?

China’s environmental organisations have started to advocate low-carbon lifestyles and the reduction of carbon footprints to help combat climate change. But they have overlooked one fact: in China, low-carbon living comes at a high cost.

It means buying energy-saving bulbs and appliances, and environmentally friendly building materials and daily goods. Cost can no longer be the sole criterion for purchases. An energy-saving and environmentally friendly product is more expensive than a standard alternative – whether it’s a simple light bulb or the house it illuminates. For average consumers, even buying an ordinary home is a huge burden. How can we persuade ordinary people to opt for an energy-saving residence? This is not a trend they can afford to follow; perhaps this fashion is only for the rich.

Most consumers today do not cause huge carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Their responsibility lies not in choosing a low-carbon lifestyle today, but in avoiding a high-carbon life in the future. The principle of “common but differentiated responsibility” – a cornerstone of sustainable development -- can be applied here as well.

In China, low-carbon living still is hampered by a lack of social infrastructure. Even if your salary allows you to make that choice, nobody is there to help you implement it.

Consider energy-saving homes. You need to find out whether or not the developer has used natural materials wherever possible; how effective the insulation is; and what the green credentials of installed equipment are. You can read up a little, but you’ll still be lucky to avoid being baffled by the developers’ marketing. Many so-called energy-saving buildings are nothing of the sort, and some are even more energy-hungry than the average home – as Li Taige warned in his article “Energy-efficient buildings? Not always”, on
chinadialogue last August.

And if you buy one of those energy-saving homes, you’ll need to learn about environmentally friendly decoration. Green building materials are more expensive, and companies may substitute cheaper alternatives and skim off the extra profit. You’ll need to choose insulating flooring, windows that make full use of sunlight, water-saving toilets, environmentally friendly paint, and more – and this is hardly your area of expertise, is it?

And then, it’s time to pick up some energy-efficient appliances. In 2005, China implemented a system of energy-efficiency labelling. As of March 1, twenty-one categories of product -- including electric induction cookers and water heaters -- will be required to carry those labels. So this, at least, will simplify the decision-making progress – or at least it will seem to. You may well find that your new washing machine, despite its label, does not actually save any electricity. There is no effective oversight of the labelling system, and some manufacturers are taking advantage, making false claims about their products. You may think you are enjoying a low-carbon life, all the while causing high levels of emissions.

With all these problems, choosing a low-carbon life and investing time and money could still lead to you being cheated by the market. Low-carbon lifestyles now, like the first generation of biofuels, are simply the transfer – or even increase -- of carbon emissions, not their reduction.

My colleague says he will buy energy-saving bulbs again. Very good, but that’s just a 30-yuan bulb. What will he do when it comes to a one-million-yuan home?

Is leading a low-carbon lifestyle too expensive, particularly for ordinary Chinese people? Do you buy environmentally friendly goods and services despite the cost? If not, would you switch to more eco-friendly products and practices if the costs were lower? How important is this lifestyle decision to you?

Let us know on the forum.

Huo Weiya is operations and development manager for chinadialogue in Beijing and former editor-in-chief of Environmental Culture Newsletter, published by China’s Green Student Forum, an environmental NGO established in 1996.

Homepage photo by armisteadbooker  

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


与北美人均水平相比,中国已经算是低碳经济了。城市碳排放程度较高,而占中国总人口80%的人们居住的农村,碳排放量就要小得多。如果中国没有政府制定的保护消费者的产品规定,那么找到一件绿色产品根本就是不可能的事情。你如何能够辨别产品真伪?去年夏天我在陕西省的一个偏远农村(1000人)发现了人们普遍使用节能灯。店家告诉我,即使比普通灯泡贵10倍,但村民发现节能灯是比较省钱的。在加拿大我买一只通用生产的节能灯需要花10加元,约合70元人民币,可以使用14000小时。按照每天照明8小时、一年365天来计算,这个灯可以用5年左右,因此我把买灯的发票保存下来。2年以后这个灯就坏掉了,我非常生气就给通用打电话告诉他们本来能用5年的灯才2年就坏掉了。他们给我寄了优惠券让我再免费领取一个新的。我估计这在中国是无法实现的。也许将来也有可能实现。Don Tai

China already leads a low carbon lifestyle

Compared to North America on a per person basis, China already leads a low carbon lifestyle. While carbon emissions in the cities are higher, in the countryside, where 80% of Chinese people live, emissions are much lower. With China's near complete lack of government regulated product protection for consumers, finding green products will be impossible. How can you tell the genuine from the fake? Marketing from the truth?

This summer I found compact fluorescent bulbs in a remote farming village (1,000 people) in Shanxi Province, the heart of coal country. The shopkeeper said even though the bulbs were 10 times more expensive, farmers bought them because in the end they saved money.

Here in Canada I too bought a GE compact fluorescent bulb, rated at 14,000 hours for $10CAD, 70RMB. At 8 hrs of usage per day, 365 days a year, I expected the bulb to last around 5 years, so I kept the sales receipt. After 2 years of use the bulb burned out. I was mad, I called GE and explained that their 5 year bulb burned out in 2 years. They mailed me a coupon so I could purchase a new GE bulb free of charge. I doubt you could do that in China. Maybe in the future?

Don Tai http://dontai.com/wp/

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




其次,即使退一步说,即使某些低碳选择将来的成本可能更高。但鉴于气候变化影响可能对人类生活造成的巨大影响,根据环境灾害的预防原则(The Precautionary Principle),也应该选择低碳发展以尽量避免和减缓气候变化的发生。而这个选择,不仅是政府和企业的责任,也同样是消费者和公民的责任,是对地球与我们的后代所肩负的义务。



Are we going to starve ourselves out of fear of choking?

This essay's opening points are good, pointing out that China's service market and administrative system are still coming up somewhat short. If consumers do not have a certain specialized knowledge, then it is very possible that they will be duped by undesirable developers and manufacturers. Even when paying high production costs, they still won't reach the low-carbon result. But is this saying consumers should just sit and wait for the government to increase its supervision and for businesses to be stung by their conscience, and use this as an excuse to continue our high-carbon-emission lives?

First, choosing low carbon will naturally cost a bit more. Any economic analysis of going low-carbon will recognize that choosing a low-carbon life and low-carbon development will, in the short term, increase production costs. Why else do you think the whole world won’t stop arguing about who should be responsible for reducing emissions? If we were able to both save money and protect the environment, would we still need to be so forceful in promoting the low-carbon life?
But this high production cost only embodies the short-term economic costs, because in the long term we can save energy and protect the environment. Choosing low-carbon will end up having a final production cost lower than the current non-low-carbon choice. But people don't easily realize or do not consider the long-term costs. It’s really hard to have the self-motivation needed to keep in line with the optimal choice for long term costs. This is also one of the most important reasons that environmental protection groups and environmental websites like China Dialogue are ceaselessly working for.

Second, to put it in the least way,even if some low-carbon alternatives actually will cost more, the influence of climate change on human life might be really huge. According to the precautionary principle of environmental disaster, we should still choose low-carbon development so that we can, as much as possible, slow down and even prevent climate change from happening. This choice is not only the responsibility of government and industry, but it is also the responsibility of consumers and the citizenry. This burden is our obligation to the world and to the future generations.

Third, the government does still have a lot of areas to perfect,which could make it easier, more relaxing, and less of a burden for consumers choosing low-carbon lives. This includes establishing a more complete low-carbon service industry, a more rigorous energy efficiency label system, more complete inspections of mechanisms, and more incentive measures. Harmful enterprises and businesses that trick people also need to be exposed. This not only needs the hard work of the government, but also needs the complete implementation of administration and law-making. And even more than that, regular consumers need to supervise things. If there are no consumers who will bravely reveal the low-carbon cheaters and firmly defend our rights, then the harmful enterprises won’t be suppressed, and competition that pays attention to quality won’t shaped.Conversely, if consumers only survey the price, then choosing low-carbon products based solely on low prices will cause the consumers to ignore the businesses’ trustworthiness and their products’ quality. While we are able to point at the government and enterprises and scold them, aren’t we ourselves somewhat responsible too?

Fourth, choosing a low-carbon life in China is, on the contrary, particularly inexpensive. Because of China’s manufacturing ability, it should already be able to produce good-quality, low-cost, low-carbon products, if you don’t choose inferior companies’ products. With your energy-saving bulb example, because of Europe’s trade protections, the price of an energy-saving bulb in Europe is two-to-three times than that of China. At the same time, in 2008, China started to implement its “Provisional Measures for the Administration of Subsidizing and Popularizing Efficient Lighting Products,” which gives a 50% subsidy to people buying energy-saving bulbs. Solar-powered water heaters cost just one-fifth, or perhaps even less, of the price in a European market. For purchasing new-energy cars, tax cuts and subsidies worth tens of thousands of Chinese Yuan are better than anything you would see in Europe. Although still far from being enough, the Chinese government has already done a lot. But if they don’t have the backing of consumers, then when China’s low-carbon industries try to develop quickly, it will be like running with only one leg. We always praise the Japanese and Koreans for supporting their own national industries. Isn’t this our opportunity to do the same?
(Translated by Jacob Fromer)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

岂能因噎废食 - 续

第五,我不同意“对于现阶段碳排放不多的普通消费者,责任不是选择低碳生活,而是预防将来的高碳生活”。很多选择(如汽车,住房),不仅影响今天,更影响明天,后天和数十年后的未来。碳锁定效应(Carbon Lock-in)对落后的高耗能投资适用,对生活方式和习惯的形成同样适用。难道要非要先学会美国的生活方式才能再学会低碳生活?每个人都可以在力所能及的范围内减少碳排放。低碳是个相对概念,不是绝对概念。


王韬 (Tao Wang)
英国廷德尔气候变化研究中心 (Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research)

How can we not eat for fear of choking-continued

The fifth,I don't agree that "for average consumers, their responsibility lies not in choosing a low-carbon lifestyle today, but in avoiding a high-carbon life in the future." Many choices(like cars and housing),have affected not only today,but also tomorrow, the day after tomorrow and even a few decades later. Carbon Lock-in can be applied to energy-guzzling investments,as well as lifestyle and habit cultivation. Could it be said that one can never learn low-carbon lifestyle well until he first learns the American lifestyle? Actually ,everyone can reduce the carbon emission within his or her ability. Low-carbon is a relative concept, not an absolute one.

Finally,I think that your friend should wait before getting another energy-saving light bulb. Since its manufacturer is a big one like Philips,with life-expectancy less than one month, he should get a replacement, return of goods, or even compensation. If they can't provide such service,that's to say,they didn't live up to their brand. Consumer rights aim at not only small factories below average,but also those well-known foreign enterprises. In other words, they need to set a good example in their own field. -- Tao Wang,of Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research
(translated by diaoshuhuan)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Passion is fading

So in other words this means that those household electrical appliances which people buy just because they want to be environmentally friendly and to save energy are not that reliable, although they are labelled as "energy saving". Wont this come as a big blow and crush the public's enthusiasm for carrying out actions of environmental protection, especially for those who are less educated. When surrounded with manufacturers' abundant advertisements, they are already so perplexed.(Translated by diaoshuhuan)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous






--马利超 [email protected]

What kind of responsibility do consumers have

In general, this article is correct, especially its argument that "low-carbon living in China is still hampered by a lack of social infrastructure". Actually, in other countries, the fundamental solution to combating climate change issues is to work on the social infrastructure at the same time. That is to say, how to make the high-carbon emission costs the deserved price, and offset the cost of low-carbon transformation. People are governed by market forces. The Chinese will not buy energy-saving light bulbs just because they are cheaper than that of Europe. The market has another name -- game playing. A man will not purchase more expensive energy-saving light bulbs because his house may be flooded in twenty years time. This means that the climate cannot be saved by voluntary carbon emission transaction, or by environmental originations' calls for the public to lower their carbon emissions. The problem specific to China, is how to find methods for people to express themselves and for the public to participate, and promote the transformation of the social infrastructure. The information passed on to the public should not stop at the level of changing the kind of lightbulb they use or rejecting disposable chopsticks, nor arguing about a superficial dreams of low-carbon living. Capable institutions should look for transparent information and decision-making channels, and combine the procedural knowledge of carbon audit, carbon price, and carbon cost, with the public‘s common knowledge. Only through abiding by the the concepts of fairness and openness will it be possible to make a difference to developing countries. Dealing with global climate change is everyone’s duty, but until we have our duties made clear, this is nothing but empty words.
--Ma Lichao [email protected]
(Translated by Tian Liang)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


translated by diaoshuhuan


While reading the comments, I can guess this commentator is an environmentalist, and a little bit of an idealist. Especially from the last part which suggests that his friend to ask for refund for that short-lived bulb. Does he know the cost (time, energy and money) involved, not to mention whether that friend will succeed or not. If you lost the invoice from the super-market, they will not deal with your claim. Who will keep the invoice for a bulb???

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


6号评论所提出的问题,我认为1号评论已经给出了答案。如果通用公司能为一个用了两年就坏掉的节能灯向消费者作出赔付, 那么菲力蒲为什么不能赔偿中国消费者购买的一个月就坏掉的灯?这反映了为什么消费者需要维护自己的权益,争取更优质的产品。 当然这一过程在中国可能没有在当今的美国那么顺利, 但是我们应该争取进步,而不是把现状看作是天经地义。 这是政府,企业和消费者要共同承担的责任----在责怪别人的同时,也不要逃避自己的责任。Tao Wang (xiulu翻译)

Why not?

To the question raised by comment 6, I think your answer is already there in comment 1. If GE could refund a energy saving bulb for a consumer after 2 years, why can't we have it by Philips for a Chinese consumer after one month? This reflects the exact reason why consumers themselves need to guard their own rights and push for higher quality products. Of course it may not be as smooth as what happened in the US now, but we should fight for improvement rather than take it as given. This is shared responsibility between government, corporate and consumers - don't escape your own while blaming the others.

Tao Wang

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous





A Reply to Comment 5

I very much agree with your belief that China needs to advance "social infrastructure." But I think you are still putting emphasis on discussing what the government and other institutions should do, and how they should do it. This is all correct. But shouldn't the consumer also participate in reformation? This then implies that the market is like a game, this is why we need to demand various kinds of exportation policies, or perhaps adopt a hitchhiker's behavior. But the undeniable fact is there actually are a lot of people, especially in Europe, who have both the momentum to follow their personal beliefs and the strength to actually reach "huanbao," or "environmental protection" behaviors, but this isn't really an argument for others to hitchhike. Because in order to cultivate society's sense of responsibility, some people are required to do their own thing first, while simultaneously influencing other people's choices, instead of the "one, two, three, everybody keep in step" kind of standpoint. The ethical standard should not be a hundred percent - although not a bit of it actually will be - and should be coupled with individual income level. At this point, we need the international community to pay attention to the demands of people in developing countries, but we cannot use this as an excuse to evade our own responsibilities. The energy saving light bulb won't help people hitchhike, but it does save your utility bill. We must do good rather than evil, no matter the scale, we don't need give rise to building castles in the sky. By the way, thanks to the author of comment 6, to whom I give praise. I was glad to take on the idealistic character of an environmentalist.
Wang Tao

(Translated by Braden Latham-Jones.)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Confused, I'm confused!

I'm confused, is living a low-carbon life really like the author says? A true low-carbon lifestyle is actually a habit of the human race, and so is coming up with ways to change and adjust. When it comes to both the individual and the family, a low-carbon lifestyle isn't really the way the author says it is. To save electricity: Turn off the lights when you leave, or just use natural sunlight if you need light; you can hand wash your clothes, don't always use your air-conditioner or heater; To save water: Use a bucket to wash your face and hands, then you can use the bucket to rinse out the toilets and bathroom; the best thing to do when you go out is to use public transportation or ride a bike, or even walk on foot. Actually, all you need to do is live by three words, "don't be lazy," then you can receive a low-carbon lifestyle. Haha. Am I wrong?
(Translated by Braden Latham-Jones.)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




Low-carbon responsibity should be shared

Low-carbon living is a kind of duty, but I agree with the author's position that leading a low-carbon life is expensive before the social infrustruction has been improved. Sometimes simply mixing the properties "low-carbon" and "energy-saving" when it comes to equipment can lead to the opposite of the desired affect, such as in the case of the energy-saving fridge.

From a higher level, enterprises, social groups and government bodies should be counted on to support the low-carbon issue. Low-carbon is a top-down process, which should be buttressed by science and technology, policy and capital.
(Translated by Tian Liang)