´╗┐Experiences of environmental issues in China so far

Air pollution

Beijing pollution was not as bad as I expected, at least in terms of fumes. I had a headache for the first 48 hours after arriving which I put down to the air quality, but it then subsided. The smog was not bad for the first few days although on the last 3 days the visibility was appalling – it felt dull and misty despite the sun being out – you just couldn’t see it (or more than 100m in front of you!). I found out later that was a particularly bad patch of pollution.

Shanghai wasn’t as bad as Beijing although I still noticed it. It came up in conversation with Selma how people who can afford to buy air purifiers for their apartments, which just adds to the cause of the problem really.

Apparently it is an issue that the government are now acting upon – a couple of years ago the American Embassy in Shanghai started tweeting about the air pollution index every day and how it compared to the US assessment of what was hazardous. For a while the Chinese government forbode it but now they give smog and air pollution much more attention in the media and have recently set up a research institute to investigate methods for reducing smog after it has been produced (not quite tackling the root cause but I guess at least it is something to help reduce the health risk!).

Waste management

Having come from Russia, I have been impressed at the infrastructure for recycling there is in all of the places we have been to, although I am not sure how much people use the ‘correct’ compartment of the bin (having peered in a few times, it seems not at all).

There are also a lot of old people who collect rubbish to recycle, as informal employment to support themselves – we regularly see old men and women carting huge bags of plastic bottles or sheets of cardboard around.

I have, however, been fairly appalled by the amount of packaging around food products, in supermarkets, at bakeries and fast food places. I bought a snack cake product the other day at the supermarket. It was in a cardboard box which looked like it might have 4-5 little cakes inside. It turned out there were just two cakes and the rest was just plastic packaging – so much of it! Supposedly the government are trying to legally reduce the amount of packaging that can be used on food products to avoid this kind of thing which is good.

Water scarcity

See profile on Thirst under ‘why’.

Food issues

Apparently there have been quite a few protests in relation to food recently e.g. the over-use of pesticides by Lipton Tea, scares to do with rat meat being sold as lamb, yoghurt containing a waste product from shoe factories… there is now a very popular Chinese website indexing all the different food scandals to help people with their consumer choices.

Organic food is becoming popular, particularly amongst parents, although that is not without issues of fraud with organic certificates. Most people resort to buying from sources they trust. The fruit and veg sellers and street markets stock only what is in season, which is a refreshing change from what we experience in the UK – access to everything all year round.

Access to nature

There are a great number of parks and green spaces in central Beijing, and most of the streets are lined with trees which is lovely. It is similarly tree-lined in central Shanghai, though the number of parks are fewer. The parks mostly cost between 10 and 20 yuan (£1-2) to get in but it does not seem to put anyone off from using them. It is a very particular type of nature created e.g. uniform lines of trees in the Temple of Heaven Park, oases of ornamental trees, pretty bridges and water in Behai park, rockeries, and many bright flower arrangements and pots.

In Beijing there did not feel a lack of green space, at least in the areas I was in, but in Shanghai I did begin to notice the lack of grass to walk on and opportunity to find a patch away from other people. For example, in the Yu gardens I was expecting/hoping for a tranquil patch of green but it was all rockeries, bridges, temples, tourists and trees surrounded by paving stones.

In Putuoshan, where we have just come from, an island part of an archipelago 5 hours bus journey south of Shanghai, I was surprised at how little people were interested in the beautiful natural surroundings. It was the temples and monasteries and seafood restaurants that most people were interested in. Time in nature away from other people isn’t for everyone but it makes me wonder if it affects interest in environmental sustainability here.


Shanghai connections

I am looking forward to dinner with Selma later, a contact of one of my friends and colleagues back in the UK, to learn more about the environmental and social enterprise landscape here in Shanghai on my last full day here. I am sad to say I didn’t hear back from other organisations based here despite multiple emails – it makes me realise how important the personal connection can be! I have been told there isn’t as much going on in the environmental sphere here but I think I will have more to say on that after our dinner later…


Back to Irkutsk…

The profile of Baikal Environmental Wave is up, from back in Irkutsk. Others from that meeting still to come… http://www.seekthechange.org/profiles/baikal-environmental-wave/ Currently in Datong, getting on an overnight train to Pingyao in 2 hours – haven’t been able to find out about environmental organisations here – these two places don’t feature amongst the areas where environmental action is more prevalent unfortunately.

Beijing bonanza of organisations

The overlap of our week-long stay in Beijing with the national holiday that kicked off on Oct 1st was not the best way to start my environmental explorations in China! I have not been able to meet up with very many of the plethora of environmental organisations there are in Beijing. I have done a LOT of sightseeing though! (The highlight was the Great Wall, of course, and finally experiencing real Chinese food!)


Not all was lost – I met a wonderful organisastion called Thirst on Wednesday (profile coming soon). I was also due to meet two more, China Youth Climate Action Network (CYCAN) and Global Environmental Institute (www.geichina.org) yesterday. Unfortunately, due to not having a working Chinese phone, both meetings failed to materialise – the first due to timings and the second due to my inability to find the office – SO frustrating! I am hoping to connect through Skype or with their colleagues in Shanghai – we will see.


I contacted many more but I think the holidays, language and difficulties with internet restrictions (WordPress is also not allowed apparently) has reduced potential responses. Still, I thought it would be worth mentioning some of the sorts of organisations I came across from the research I did:

– Friends of Nature China

– China Energy Trip

– Shangri La Institute for Sustainable Communities

– World Young Leaders

– China Association for Non-Governmental Organisations (CANGO)

– G:Hub


All doing interesting and varied things by the sounds of their websites!



An excerpt from one of my meetings back in Tomsk!

Meeting Sergey – Siberian Ecological Agency: http://youtu.be/2C-LUtnnhl8

There will be more information up soon from Tomsk once my draft has been approved!

And as for now, I’ve got an intense 3 days of Beijing sightseeing coming up after having had 2 out of 3 ‘faff’ days in our time here so far… We have been to the Great Wall though – big pinch myself moment. It was one of the sights I particularly wanted to see! There are recycling bins galore there you will be pleased to know!

Mongolian insights

I didnt meet with any environmental organisations in Ulaanbataar unfortunately. However, I was able to gain some insights from our tour, our tour guide and from a friend of a friend who has lived in UB the past year.


– the landscape is vast (I know I am stating the obvious but really, it is SO vast!)

– the country has 3 million people, 1-1.5 million of whom live in the capital. That’s a pretty low population density across the rest of the country!

– the nomadic culture still seems strong although it is declining as more and more people move to UB – the nomadic lifestyle is tough, just from the small, tourism-angled glimpse that I got, but moving to UB does not necessarily promise better – there is high unemployment, high pollution levels and other issues affecting city dwellers

– there are huge numbers of construction projects going up, to house all of the people moving to UB

– there is apparently a strong sense of oneness with nature amongst Mongolian people

– there is a lot of resistance to the large mining projects in the Gobi Desert, particularly the Rio Tinto mine to the south, which accounts for about 30-40% of Mongolia’s GDP. According to one person I met the Rio Tinto mine gets a lot of bad press but it does actually have stringent environmental standards which it does a good job at sticking to, and it has a far better record than many illegally operating mines in the country. Just depends who you speak to what story you get I guess…

– for so few people in the country, there seems to be a lot of rubbish scattered everywhere, which slightly contradicts the oneness and respect for nature. On the other hand, you can’t be much less impactful than by living the nomadic lifestyle so really the rubbish is probably the one harmful by-product they do have

– it was incredible to see the Przewalski (wild) horse – it really did look like they’d jumped out of cavemens’ paintings to be standing in front of us! It is gratifying to see the successful outcomes of a conservation reintroduction programme. After extinction in the wild in the 60s with just 42 left in various zoos, there are now over 320 horses in Hustai National Park and they are thriving!