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Young minds lead the way Emily Venturi and Lucy Ridout meet four Chinese activists taking steps to meet the environmental challeges facing the world

With a widening gulf between China and the United States, geopolitics has dominated discussions in the lead up to this year’s COP climate conference. But behind this heavily politicized backdrop, young people who are driving local environmental action offer an opportunity to recentre climate discussions on people-driven solutions to the challenges the world faces. We met with four young Chinese environmental activists to understand how China’s next generation is working on green issues and driving local change. Miao Wang, a scuba-diver who has been named a UN Environment Programme Young Champion of the Earth, fights for ocean conservation in China’s tropical island Hainan. Jiaxin Zhao is a Shanghaibased engineer and advises companies on carbon offsetting in line with China’s goal to become carbon neutral by . Finally, Xiaoyuan ‘Charlene’ Ren and Dixinyao ‘Moonlight’ Zhu, a dynamic duo leading MyH O’s work to bring clean drinking water and data-driven policy solutions to rural Chinese communities.

At this critical juncture, they share their expertise and perspectives on the status of international negotiations. At COP , political and industry leaders could follow the example of young people on the ground, whose work goes beyond geopolitics and great-power rivalries.

China’s rural-urban divide Discussions about Chinese experiences of environmental issues often direct attention to China’s rural-urban divide.

Jiaxin’s parents migrated from China’s inland provinces to the more industrialized coastal region. However, migrant workers often cannot access public services such as healthcare and education, because of China’s household registration system. ‘Growing up in a migrant family made me care a lot about improving the lives of marginalized people.’ At university, Jiaxin discovered that his environmental studies and his interest in social impact were a natural fit.

He explains that low-income families are more exposed to environmental risks, such as air and water pollution, and the effects of extreme weather. However, public support for climate policies fluctuate, especially in China’s low-income areas.

‘If you want to make climate policy attractive, you first need to make it equitable.’ Jiaxin’s research focuses on climate equity and related policy solutions such as minimum energy efficiency standards,

renewable energy subsidies and the redistribution of carbon tax revenue.

Charlene and Moonlight focus directly on rural China and work to bring clean and safe drinking water to underprivileged communities. Moonlight’s personal experiences motivate her environmental work: ‘I saw that it wasn’t a single issue because the village next to my hometown, and the village next to that, they all faced the common issue [of poor water quality].’ MyH O’s focus on young people is an example to learn from. It recruits, trains and brings students into rural communities. Charlene says: ‘By witnessing change, this can help students feel like they have it within their hands to create change and are in charge of the future. ’

‘Civil society has an important role to play in solving climate change,’ says Jiaxin.

Growing up in the coastal city of Jinzhou, Miao would regularly swim in the sea. But by middle school the water was so severely polluted she was forced to stop. Miao’s love of the ocean took her to Hainan, where she founded Better Blue, a community of divers devoted to marine conservation.

This year, Beijing revised its list of endangered wildlife species for the first time in more than years, giving protection to species, including many aquatic species.

‘China is paying a lot of attention to biodiversity protection, but progress is still slow,’ says Miao. There remains a vast gap between ambition and reality. Miao points to China’s ‘paper parks’ – protected areas and national parks which exist only in print. Through Better Blue, Miao hopes to establish a precedent for how non-profit organizations can work with the Chinese government to provide real protection for national marine parks. Moonlight and Charlene, who is also a UNEP Young Champion, share their vision for state-civil society collaboration, and describe how they have learnt to communicate with government officials.

Underlining the role that civil society plays in China, Charlene says: ‘There are a lot of imaginings about what is happening in China that simply aren’t reflective of reality. Often people are surprised that we have a non-profit sector, that advocacy is even possible here, and that young people are doing advocacy work.’

Civil society has been at the sharp end of the response to the Covid pandemic in China, providing communities with lifelines despite huge social and financial setbacks.

Jiaxin argues that civil society leaders can draw parallels between the pandemic and


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