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Visiting the Low Carbon College China (2)

Observations & Surprises

It has been hard to decide what to write about from my visit to China, in part because I know I saw only a very small and narrow bit of life there – geographically and also in the sense that most of the people I met were relatively privileged working at University or alumni of the University of St Andrews. This blog focuses mainly on my observations on some mundane aspects of city life and what surprised me on my visit. I include some reflections on how these may hint at more or less sustainable ways of living but also recognise that these are complex issues and debatable as well. I am also aware that these again are my own observations and others I spoke to about these observations during my travels sometimes informed me that it varied quite a bit from their experiences.

I had been told that people do not recycle and are likely to litter. I was surprised that there were recycling bins in most public spaces and very little garbage on the street and in parks, I even saw a volunteer group out on the weekend picking up litter and there were commonly workers out cleaning the streets.

I had been warned about air pollution and smoking indoors. I was surprised when for the start of my trip I didn’t see the sun for 2 weeks due to bad weather not smog, and it took me a while to tell the difference between air pollution and clouds obfuscating the sun. In a month there, I only experienced 3 or 4 bad days of very unhealthy levels of air pollution. I was also relieved to discover that the regulations have changed in Shanghai a couple years ago and you can no longer smoke indoors. I can remember how disgusting restaurants and hotel rooms were when I was a child and you were still allowed to smoke indoors and had dreaded that I would have to experience that again.

I had read as well about the generosity of Chinese hosts and this completely blew me away. I was so unbelievably lucky to have my friend Wei Lin put me in touch with her friends in China. I was essentially a stranger to these friends of friends and other contacts at the University of Jiao Tong but I was repeatedly surprised by how much time they sacrificed to show me around, respond to my messages, and how difficult it was to pay for touristy activities and shared meals when in their company. I would not have enjoyed my visit or learned so much if it were not for the company of Tingting, Haishan, Qiaoyu, Wendy, Paul, and Abj – thank you all!


When I first arrived I was completely overwhelmed by the size of Shanghai, I have never ever seen so many skyscrapers and polytunnels. Even on the train it still takes an hour or more to pass through never-ending patches of high rises. From the plane window the cities looked different from others I’ve visited before as well, having a greater order and clustering of uniform apartment blocks – even designed to take advantage of solar gains with the southern blocks being lower and gradually increasing in height. I was surprised however that for the most part I didn’t feel overly claustrophobic or overwhelmed by being in a city packed with so many people. I have spent most of the past 10 years in a small Scottish town with three main streets and a population of less than 20,000 and I had expected to be overwhelmed in China’s largest city and the second most populous city in the world, home to a little over 24 million people. Especially because I often am overwhelmed by the crowds when I get off the train in London. Of course, the subway could be extremely packed, but it never felt as muggy or cramped as the London underground which is much older and runs much further underground.

Shanghai also felt oddly futuristic - everything can be paid for on your phone - restaurants, shops, trains, bus, subway. By the end of the month this was not as exciting, and I almost cannot explain why it felt so different. But essentially, you could see the menu for any restaurant before you arrived and order. While we have that in the UK and US to an extent, it was extraordinary because it is uncommon to have everything in one app. For a while I worried about being overly reliant on your mobile and the battery dying but they also have battery packs for rent all over - in restaurants, subway stations and malls so that you can pick one up for a few pence and return it anywhere in the city. What an obvious solution to people trying to plug their mobiles into all sorts of odd outlets you often see in the UK/US!


The other app that was incredible is WeChat. This is similar to WhatApp, but also has a 'story' timeline like Instagram and a wallet so that you can transfer money to any of your contacts. I wish we had WeChat - it offers thousands of stickers that move and are more entertaining and specific than emojis.


On my first day walking around I was struck by people on scooters and bicycles that had gloves and blankets or rain covers (in the title picture). I loved this low-tech way to get around the cold and wet climate without layering more clothes themselves or needing the cover and protection from the elements that a car affords.

The next pleasant surprise was experiencing such an efficient, affordable, and well-connected mass transit system. The mass transit was absolutely incredible from subway, to buses to bullet trains (that usually travel at 180mph). Taking the subway or bus for an hour cost 80 pence or less, a bullet train for an hour cost £8. That said, the 4.5 hour bullet train to Beijing compared to usual prices for a trip of that length in the UK, costing £60, and you couldn’t buy in advance for a cheaper price (this may be because I took the world’s fastest passenger train going 220mph, rather than the usual bullet trains though). I found all of these incredibly efficient and on time.

There were differences in the infrastructure for trains and subway as well. On the subway there is a glass wall on the platform so that no one can fall onto the tracks, doors open in alignment only when the subway carriage has arrived and has its doors open. This was nice because it meant people knew where the doors would be and lined up before arrival. For the major train stations there was no option to loiter on the train platform because you are only allowed on a short period before the train arrived and instead had to wait upstairs in a relatively warm station with seats and shops. The trains also only had forward facing seats, which multiple Chinese people raised as a benefit to trains there after they had experienced a backward facing seat in the UK making them feel sick.

Food & Drink

The other thing I loved about the trains, and indeed this was common in public areas all over, was there were free hot water taps! Instead of having to pay for a cup of tea, nearly everywhere you had access to hot water. I was amazed on my first train journey how many people – old, young, men, women – had little thermos, and this cut down (but of course did not eliminate) the number of disposable coffee cups that I saw. Since having drinking fountains around is often raised as an important infrastructure change to reduce use of plastic water bottles, could hot water taps not also be part of a solution to use of single-use coffee cups?! There is of course a different culture behind this norm, the Chinese have an affinity for hot water and do not find room-temperature water appealing or healthy. So the expectation for hot water taps is different and it would likely not fit in the same way with the practices of tea and coffee drinking, often including dairy, that are common in the UK for instance.



Speaking of westerner diets, it was interesting to have a lot less dairy and sugar in my own diet for a month. This was undone in my last week when I was surrounded by bubble tea (milky, sweetened tea with tapioca pearls), which I am hugely addicted to - it’s one of the foods I miss most from where I grew up. For the first two weeks though I only drank milk twice (again in bubble tea). I have actually been trying to stop putting milk in my tea so it was somewhat welcome to feel forced into this shift. And overall the food seemed less sweet and rich than what is usually available in the US and UK, even when you ordered a dessert. There were several weeks where at least one meal a day I was pointing at pictures and not completely sure what I would be eating, as a result I ended up in Starbucks more than I have in the past few years just to have a break from the stress of trying to be understood and not knowing what I would be served. For the most part food was very different from what you find in the west. When you ordered duck, you got the whole duck and had to chew around the bones and wonder what anyone would want with the head. There were so many more vegetables than we have! This annoyed me the first time I wandered around a supermarket, why do they get more types of interesting greens, mushrooms, and textures?! Indeed, I was surprised again that there did not appear to be food deserts in the city, fresh fruit and vegetable shops were prolific. Also when you were out at a restaurant vegetables were the cheaper option, as they should be. So vegetarian dishes (OK often when you ordered a plate of cauliflower it also came with little bits of meat for flavouring) cost very little compared to meat dishes and in many ways I found it easier to get a lot of vegetables in my diet than I do in the UK.


The trip also made me appreciate a little more how wasteful my own consumption of meat has been as I have grown up mainly eating the breast of birds and discarding fat and gristle. At the same time, my stomach crawls at the thought of what I had eaten or tried to psych myself up to eat. I ate lung, kidney, stomach, and sinew (most of these by accident), and potentially some other odd things that no one was around to tell me about. Some of the food was hard to try, it took me a week to get the courage to eat a common breakfast item which is an egg boiled in tea and soy sauce. It’s so green and brown on the outside it looked disgusting but when I finally took a bite it was delicious. I spent another week trying to get myself to try chicken feet because all the Chinese people I spoke to raved about them but I didn’t manage in the end. I explained this desire/challenge to my host on my last day and she made me let go of the idea when she pointed out that what tastes good depends on what you have grown up eating. She had lived in the US for a year and pointed out that there some people would say hamburgers are delicious but that to her and other Chinese they don’t taste very good. Comparing a hamburger to chicken feet helped me appreciate again how difficult it is to compare norms and trajectories for Chinese diet or the impact of the growing ‘middle class’. It has also made me reflect how different it is for us to talk about the environmental impact of meat eating in the west compared to China. How do we compare the inputs and resources for chicken feet or sinew or eating an entire bird compared to a beef for a hamburger or steak?

I had the pleasure of delivering a lecture on sustainable consumption and carbon footprints for the masters students at the Low Carbon College, and from this brief survey of the class it was fairly clear how different the lifestyles and impacts are. While students in St Andrews often worry about flying and many will be vegetarian, these Chinese students had no guilt around flying or eating meat. I had one student fill in a carbon calculator and was actually a bit shocked when there was a question on living space and household size. He said he lived in 20m2 with three others and I clarified that he must mean they each have 20m2, but no they each had 5m2! When we got to the end of the carbon calculator he had a similar impact to me (3.5 Earths), although this was due to his eating meat nearly every day with travel and housing and shopping relatively low and my footprint being relatively low for food but most of my emissions coming from travel (roughly 60 hours on a plane in the past 12 months). This led to a discussion on the difference in way meat is consumed in China as opposed to the west and has made me want to look into how this is accounted for in carbon calculators or full life cycle assessments.

Space heating & cooling

The final observation, related to sustainability, is space heating practices (I know that cooling is likely much more important and common but considering I visited in the winter I cannot comment on this). I was a bit surprised by how many places had no mechanical heating or cooling where it would be commonly expected in the UK/US – shops, malls, museums, restaurants, office buildings, and train and subway stations often did not have heating and you just had to leave your coat/hat/gloves on. In my first apartment there was a large dining room, living room, kitchen that was unheated the entire time and my host left the window open in this room even when it was below freezing outside. From conversations I had this does not seem particularly unusual, but it changes my argument around increasing floor area per person being important due to the expectation to heat/cool that space. Similarly, the Low Carbon College building was unheated (i.e. hallways, entrance ways and common rooms, bathrooms, canteen, etc) expect for when someone was actually physically in an office or teaching space. Below the Yangtze River there is no regulation to have central heating systems and that means some people do without (especially I was told the older generation or those outside of cities) or often the air-conditioning unit is used to heat as well. It was also interesting to find that the common setting for these AC units was 31C in the winter (which I had several Chinese and foreigners verify this was their experience as well)! This is much higher than the normal settings I have seen in the US and UK, and interesting considering the academic literature that discusses a homogenisation of indoor temperatures around 18-21C. That said, the rooms did not usually feel like 31C to me, perhaps 25C at most, as most buildings I was in had leaky windows and did not appear to be well-insulated.

I have focused on some rather mundane observations, but I hope some of it has been of interest! My next and final blog is a bit more academic.

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