SHANGHAI: As governments from around the world met in Bonn in November to discuss the next steps in the global fight against climate change, they had support from some unexpected allies: China’s 1.38 billion consumers.
Decades of explosive growth in China, while lifting huge swathes of the population out of poverty, has no doubt also taken a toll on its environment and turned the world’s second-largest economy into its top emitter of greenhouse gases. News about pollution by China’s heavy industries, and images of its smog-filled megacities make the headlines at regular intervals.
So some might scoff at the very idea of green-conscious Chinese consumers.
But there are signs the very pervasiveness of China's environmental issues has caused its residents to become more sensitive to climate change – and open to new ways of combating it.
A survey conducted by Ipsos in July, for example, showed China with the most respondents worried about climate change in their country: 25 per cent named it among their top three concerns.
That compares with 21 per cent in Canada, the second highest out of 26 countries polled. The global average was just 9 per cent.
At the same time, China’s fast-growing middle class is set to become ever more demanding about their health and quality of life. Many are also tech-savvy and adventurous – and their willingness to try out new products and services is supported by an innovative private sector that is tuned in to their tastes and needs.
REKINDLING THE LOVE OF BIKING
One prominent example is the bike-sharing boom that has swept the country over the past year or so. Bicycles, which had become a rarity on city roads, are now back big time.
On street corners and at subway exits of many Chinese cities today, residents can now pull out their mobile phones to scan and unlock rental bicycles as they complete the final legs of their daily commutes or head to the supermarket.
While some may complain about the mess the scattered bicycles create, the convenience and low cost of these schemes has convinced millions of Chinese to rekindle their love for a mode of transport that is healthier, easier on the pockets, and also better for the environment.
According to Mobike, a bike-sharing start-up whose investors include China’s Tencent and Silicon Valley’s Sequoia Capital, its 100 million users have more than doubled their use of bicycles within a year, while cutting their car trips by half.
Mobike, which surveyed 100,000 of its customers, also estimated that in the year following its scheme’s launch in mid-2016, its riders may have reduced their aggregate carbon emissions by 540,000 tonnes. That is equivalent to taking 170,000 cars off the road for a year.
For those who still prefer driving, China is also becoming a test-bed for car-sharing projects. Munich-based consultancy Roland Berger predicts that China’s car-sharing fleet will grow 45 per cent per year until 2025, prompted in part by government efforts to curb air pollution.
In an especially environment-friendly example, Shanghai’s EVCard provides over 8,000 electric cars for short-term rental in 23 cities. With a mobile phone app and key card, users can search for available cars for as little as 0.50 renminbi a minute, or 180 yuan per day. That’s less than US$30.
Helped by government incentives, China’s electric vehicle market is booming as well. Last year, 257,000 battery-powered electric cars were registered in the country, accounting for 55 per cent of the world’s total. That’s three times more than in the United States.
And the market for such vehicles is likely to continue growing rapidly as China mulls a future ban on fossil fuel cars. News in September that the authorities are considering such a step echoes similar announcements in France and the UK earlier this year.
On a more mundane level, green ideas are also being embedded into the daily routines of Chinese lives.
In August 2016, the ubiquitous AliPay mobile payment app introduced Ant Forest, a mini-app that allows users to convert activities such as walking, e-commerce, and paying their bills online into “green energy” points. Collect enough points in Ant Forest and users can exchange them for an actual tree to be planted in desert areas such as in Inner Mongolia.
Ant Financial, which conducted the experiment in association with the United Nations Environment Programme, reported 200 million users took part in the six months after the app was launched, with behaviour changes over the period resulting in an estimated 150,000 tons of avoided carbon emissions and over 1 million trees planted.
All these may seem like little steps in the context of the environmental challenges facing the world. But given the sheer size of China’s population and economy, such developments count – and not just within China, but globally, too.
They also hold a lesson for companies that are keen to cater to China’s burgeoning middle class.
Whether you are a British retailer of baby clothes, a Japanese car-maker, or a chain of American restaurants, you need to be aware that China’s consumers increasingly care not just about the price and convenience of the products and services they buy, but also their environmental impact.
Couple that with the government’s big push to cap energy consumption, reduce emissions and boost renewable energy generation as part of China’s commitments under the Paris Agreement on climate change, it appears that the earth will be better off with China's growth.
David Liao is president and chief executive officer of HSBC China.