July 12, 2010
A few months ago, I described a segment on the Chinese state television’s English channel about food as part of the “low carbon life” in China. The program explored this new lifestyle through the burgeoning vegetarian restaurant scene in Beijing, and a handful of consumers who claimed to eschew meat out of consideration for the environment. It was a bit narrow in focus but suggested that some people are making this connection, and reducing their meat consumption as a consequence.
The question of whether the Chinese are indeed considering the climate impact of their food choices is one of many I am asking during my travels in China this month on my Innovations Grant. Meat consumption is rising at a fierce pace in China; according to the most recent figures from the FAO, beef consumption in China will increase by 1.5 million tons and sheep meat by more than 1 million tons within the decade (both products are benefiting from a current hotpot craze, supplanting ever-popular pork in many urban restaurants). This is a phenomenon that has many experts (especially those in the West) from the food security, public health, food safety, animal welfare, and environmental communities in a tizzy. I can say that two weeks in I don’t perceive most urban consumers in Beijing as pondering the environmental costs of their beloved pork-filled dumplings or roast duck or beef-garnished noodles or food production in general.
Yet there is no question that the Chinese government is deeply concerned about climate change, and taking energy efficiency and renewable energy very seriously. But what about the notion of an individual’s carbon footprint? Are Chinese consumers at least learning about the impacts of their own food (and energy choices)? Most certainly still are not, but this concept may be beginning to percolate down from the decision makers to the masses, at least those that live in Beijing, with the help of a public awareness campaign straight to the point.
On my second day in the city, I noticed this advertisement posted in the Beijing subway, which is indeed promoting the low-carbon life in its various forms.
Its sponsor is the Beijing city government and is the second (dedicated to food) of a four-part series on low-carbon living (after clothes, and before the home and traveling). I’ve also noticed the city is promoting public health in other ways, for example, with full-color ads of people happily practicing in tai chi in Tian’amen square as a traditional and favorable form of exercise.
What does the green ad say? Beneath the big heart, it reads “Low carbon: best way of life.” On the right, you have a mug of beer, with a suggestion to save 0.2 kg of CO2 by drinking one less; below that a suggestion to save 8.65 kg of CO2 with an energy-efficient electric (rice?) cooker; then to eat 0.5kg less meat with a savings of 0.7kg CO2; and lastly to save 0.46 kg CO2 with 0.5kg less food.
One wonders where exactly these numbers come from (and are they yearly emissions reductions estimates?) but the government deserves from credit for making a clear association between meat and global warming in such a simple way. Do people read it? Do they care? Who knows. But it’s been out there, in the corridors and platforms of stations across the city for some six months, and maybe its youth-friendly graphics will catch the attention of the generation best poised to think in new ways about consumption.