COMMENTARY: Sheri Liao, China’s Green Fighter

Putting a major polluter on the green path

Connecticut’s Fairfield University, a Jesuit institution, is going green with a comprehensive strategy that includes recycling, energy and water conservation and several environmental academic programs. As part of that program, it recently hosted Sheri Liao, founder and president of Global Village of Beijing (GVB), a Chinese nonprofit that promotes eco-friendly lifestyles. Invited to receive an honorary Ph.D. in law, the soft-spoken philosopher, journalist and environmentalist addressed China’s green initiatives just as China exceeded the U.S. as the world’s largest global warming emitter. "Chinese issues are the world’s issues," she declared with considerable justification.

Sheri Liao is the founder and president of Global Village of Beijing (GVB), a Chinese nonprofit that promotes eco-friendly lifestyles.© Katherine Cure

Formerly a visiting environmental scholar at the University of North Carolina, Liao gave up academic life to return to her home country and create the award-winning GVB. "The world might need more Ph.Ds, but what China really needs is an environmental group," she says. Launched in 1996, mostly with American financial support, GVB has been working ever since to make China green. It’s a gargantuan task.

China: A Global Polluter

Combining a huge land area, a population of 1.3 billion, status as the world’s manufacturer and a steady commitment to rapid economic growth, it’s not surprising that China is at the very top of the list when it comes to global polluters. With the U.S., it is responsible for more than half of global greenhouse emissions, and according to the New York Times, current trends will see it producing 40 percent of these emissions by 2025.

Seventy-five percent of China’s huge manufacturing sector runs on coal-fired electricity. Coal is both cheap and abundant in China, but its combustion produces carbon dioxide, the main contributor to global warming. A new coal plant opens almost every week in China, contributing to the already extensive smoke clouds that cover almost all of China’s heavily populated cities. According to GVB, a sixth of China’s land is deteriorating, and 5,000 species are threatened. There are severe and growing fresh water shortages, and some 80 percent of China’s sewage is still discharged directly into rivers and lakes.

In Beijing, smog and smoke are so heavy that visibility is reduced and air unsafe to breathe. Cases of lung cancer and other respiratory diseases have dramatically increased and more than 400,000 people per year are believed to die prematurely of causes related to poor air quality. Increasingly heavy automobile traffic, major water contamination and desert dust storms also contribute to the comprehensive eco-disaster. Smoke clouds from China have reached Los Angeles, and sulfur emissions from Chinese factories have been linked to acid rain in Japan.

Well aware of these problems, Chinese officials have begun the process of creating a greener China. Triggered by world concerns for environmental issues and an increasingly vocal environmental movement, the Chinese government has embarked on a plan that includes greening the 2008 Beijing Olympics, setting country-wide targets for energy reduction, moving toward green economic indicators (Green GDP) and promoting new investments in green construction.

But the pace to an environmentally friendly China is still agonizingly slow, as the world continues to depend upon China for production of global goods. Many initiatives, like making Beijing green for hosting the 2008 Olympics, have been compared to cleaning the house for a visit. Strategies include moving factories to distant locations and stopping traffic during the games. These "solutions" might work to clear up the air for the international event, but they’re not long-term solutions.

The Beijing National Stadium, one site where the greened-up 2008 Beijing Olympics will be held.

In China, the environmental movement is still relatively new but it can play a significant role, especially at the local level. GVB, together with approximately 70 other grassroots groups in China, is becoming an important player. To increase its clout, it works with such international organizations as the World Wildlife Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Conservation International.

Global Village Beijing

According to Liao, most Chinese environmental organizations focus on the environment in isolation, with campaigns geared towards biodiversity conservation and ecosystem protection. But, she says, environmental problems are endemic, rooted in the Chinese lifestyle. "Misunderstanding of life’s meaning is what brings about environmental problems," she says. GVB’s projects aim at changing individual behavior and consumption patterns, by creating environmental awareness and promoting environmentally friendly lifestyles.

GVB’s approach has four objectives: greening the media, the community, tourism and the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The media side is addressed by producing environmental documentaries for national TV, organizing journalism forums and forging links between media and policy makers. GVB has produced weekly documentaries for the past five years, raising public consciousness considerably, with one result being the introduction of car-less days in Beijing.

Partly because of strong public support, some of GVB’s initiatives have been translated into national policy. Perhaps the best example is the 26 Degree Campaign, encouraging residents and businesses to set their air conditioners to a temperature no lower than 78.8 degrees Fahrenheit (26 degrees Celsius) in the summer. This simple measure is estimated to save copious amounts of energy, since air conditioners alone are responsible for about 50 percent of summer energy consumption. Hundreds of companies are now complying with the policy.

The key, according to Liao, is to restore Chinese culture in a society that has forgotten its history and moved towards a consumer-driven lifestyle. "Science and democracy alone are not enough," she says. "We also need harmony—between individuals, between society and nature, between the body and mind, inside and out." She says that harmonious individuals, with inner balance, will have less time and will to follow the consumer rush. The harmony concept can be seen in practice in ancient Chinese medicine. In the west, treating an illness means taking medication and combating the symptoms. Chinese medicine treats illness by getting to its roots.

Moments with Ms. Liao

"We have to influence the policy makers, because cooperation with government is crucial."

E Magazine: Have you seen concrete results from your aim of changing lifestyles? And do you think this approach can offer environmental solutions on time?

Liao: It’s difficult to persuade people to choose more environmentally friendly lifestyles, but I think we do have some solutions. First of all we send a very strong message to the public that anyone can participate. Before, they didn’t know how to get involved in environmentally friendly practices. They thought environmental issues were just the government’s responsibility or the businesses or someone else. They realize now that you have a responsibility, you have an obligation as a consumer. Other concrete results are in the communities, where they are now recycling. Almost everyone knows of the 26 Degree policy. Public awareness is very important. Individuals have to know their

responsibility. Environmental practices are not just the nonprofit group’s work or the government’s work. Everybody can do it.

So how do you build awareness?

We work very closely with the media. For many years we have produced regular independent TV documentaries on environmental protection. And we also have a journalism forum on environmental issues.

Is this your most important campaign?

Yes, because the media can influence policy makers. This happens not just through the programs they air, but also through their special channels to the government. In this way they really promote some good policies; like green building and energy conservation.

Accelerated growth, increasing economic power, do these go together with a green China?

Most Chinese people, including many officials, want a combination of environmental protection and economic development. But when officials look at indicators to evaluate economic growth and achievement they rely solely on gross domestic product (GDP). From that perspective, it’s very difficult to combine growth and green policies. This is the biggest problem in China.

So what are needed are new indicators for economy that can include environmental values?

Yes, for example, a green GDP indicator. But green GDP promotion is very difficult, not only in China, but in the world. When I attended the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) annual meeting in Paris, I saw that almost everybody still talks about GDP as growth. So if the developed countries, the rich countries, cannot shift their indicators from GDP, it’s difficult for developing countries such as China to change to green GDP.

Would you say that the green concept is now widespread in China?

Green practice is still a new phenomenon, but it is welcome by the people. It’s a challenge. China faces comprehensive environmental problems. Technology growth is too fast. If you have fast economic growth you are facing fast environmental degradation.

Chinese culture is millenary and has included harmony as part of the lifestyle. Many people have given up this traditional culture, but now more and more Chinese people and officials are realizing the importance of traditional culture based on harmony. I hope more and more people will realize the value of the traditional culture.

But how do we introduce harmony into the picture?

Through the media. First we promote a harmonic community, introducing traditional values into people’s daily lives, combining health, social and environmental issues. And now we are trying to involve Cooperative of Social Responsibility (CSR), with these traditional values and also some educational programs in school. First of all you have to realize the importance of Chinese traditional values, and then you have to spread these values through the media, community, schools and companies. This is what we are doing: we take environment, spirit and body as a whole. We are promoting environmental protection with a more comprehensive approach, not just environmental policies, but some spiritual work as well.

So would you say balanced people are less prone to damage the environment?

If you have balance in your heart and mind, your behavior will be more balanced. If people pay more attention to spiritual life and to health issues, they will spend less time on material consumption. The purpose of development is to make people happy and healthy, but these things come from spiritual and body energy, not from material energy.

What message would you like to give E Magazine’s readers?

I think everybody on the world, no matter if they’re eastern or western, have to realize the dangers this planet faces. I hope everybody can pay more attention to the harmony between environment, spirit and body. It is all for our common good.

CONTACT: Global Village of Beijing

KATHERINE CURE is an E intern and marine biologist from Colombia.