Shanghai Calling: International Collaboration for Sustainability

Students from the China Youth Climate Action Network attended PowerShift in February, 2009, to demonstrate their committment to clean energy. (CYCAN)
Collaborative, international climate change action is on the rise, thanks to people like Xiangyu Zhao. Known as “Shane” to English-speaking friends, Xiangyu Zhao is an international student at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania and also serves as the international director of the China Youth Climate Action Network (CYCAN).

Shane kicked off his involvement as a climate change activist while still a teenager in China. Transplanted from his native coal-mining town in Heilongjiang province to Beijing, he employed recent Northwestern University graduate John Romankiewicz as an English tutor. The two young men quickly found that they had a shared passion for environmental issues. Together, they formed lüse xiongdi–in English, the Green Brothers.

Collaboration–between neighbours, between groups, and between nations–is a core principle of sustainability. And as the Green Brothers illustrate, representatives from two of the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters, the U.S. and China, have a lot to share with each other.

The Green Brothers decided to share their passion for environmentalism through a series of video podcasts that educate young people on issues ranging from biomass to public transportation through narration, comedy skits and “eco-rap”. One recent episode on green dating, for instance, starred a sexy, bicycle-riding vegetarian. A Fulbright grant, won by Romankiewicz, paid for the video camera and other resources to support their work, and British environmental site China Dialogue funded 30 young people, including a growing number of “green sisters,” to attend a Green Brothers video-making seminar in Beijing. The pair also began China’s Green Beat, a CYCAN-supported site which tracks engagement by overlaying videos on a map of China.

While the podcasts are produced in Mandarin, they have English subtitles, and increasingly address an international audience. According to Shane, such efforts can succeed only when activists take learning each others’ language–and culture–very seriously. “In order to cooperate,” he says, “there needs to be more understanding…understanding, for example, about the problems that developing countries are facing in terms of population issues. Chinese students should understand about Western systems as well.”

Climate change activism is popular among Chinese students. There are currently over 2,500 active student environmental groups in the country. China revealed its national climate-change program in 2007, inspiring a new wave of organization and action among student groups. That same year, students held their own dedicated forum at China’s NGO Sustainable Development Conference. Shortly thereafter, seven large student organizations joined to form CYCAN. This meeting of many minds spawned a discussion of student climate change activism on both sides of the globe, and highlighted the necessity of collaborative work in order to be effective. One of the member groups of CYCAN, the China Green Student Group, worked with the internationally focused non-profit organization Topenergy to audit energy use at China’s universities in 2007, resulting in changes that slashed energy use up to 30% at some schools.

Engagement on Chinese campuses goes beyond energy audits. At Beijing Normal University, a recent series of fashion shows endeavoured to raise environmental awareness through themes such as “forests,” “water,” and “the atmosphere”. Other groups work on projects such as teaching farmers about environmental technology and competitions to increase student understanding of forestry’s relationship to climate change issues. In 2007, the Shanghai Live Earth concert served as a platform for student leaders to meet and begin national scale collaboration on a number of climate change projects.

Among their other projects, CYCAN is sponsoring an International Youth Summit on Climate Change in July, 2009, at which global climate action organization is hosting a workshop on media campaigns. Shane says the conference “will bring more American students who are interested in China and want to work together into our network.” He’s particularly interested in making connections with foreign exchange students, as he beleives Chinese students in the US and American students in China are invaluable resources for making international connections.

As these kinds of relationships develop, Shane has some advice for Western students interested in getting involved: “I think they should start with learning at the beginning, how Chinese people think about some issues, such as the new China Renewable Energy Bill. Once they know more about China, then maybe they can start to work with some grassroots Chinese youth NGOs.” He adds, “Once we can communicate with full respect and understanding, I think there will be more ways to build bridges, to share experiences on reducing energy consumption and protecting the environment.”

Published: July 14, 2009