I have spent the past month in China as a visiting scholar at the new Low Carbon College, Shanghai Jiao Tong University. I wanted to visit China because in the context of sustainability it is often a country that is seen as ‘the problem’ due to their reliance on coal, pollution, and a growing middle class that is expected to dramatically increase global resource consumption. Indeed, China contributes the most nationally to global carbon emissions (Olivier et al., 2014), but it also invests the most globally to renewable energy (i.e. 45% of investment (REN21, 2018) and per capita carbon emissions are still dramatically lower than those in the Global North (Hubacek et al., 2017).
Furthermore, a huge amount of the pollution and resource consumption in China is for products and services consumed in the Global North (Peters et al., 2012) and when you consider that, it means our consumption is a big driver of these emissions. That is part of why I get somewhat frustrated by how often North Americans and Europeans balk at suggestions about their country (and their own lifestyles) being determinantal to the environment and instead point the finger at China and India.
For example, when I mentioned my trip for work several people were surprised suggesting that I would only be able to learn about what is unsustainable – as if there was little China was doing for the environment and social justice. I am not implying that China is without fault - there are still of course huge issues around inequality, working conditions, freedom of movement, and political expression. Moreover, the debate over the role of developed and developing countries to meet goals to reduce their environmental impact as well as address issues of poverty and inequality is complex and contentious and I am not intending to unpick it here Rather I raise this to explain that I went perhaps with a more open mind than others, open to the idea that their everyday life and culture may be more sustainable or have a lower impact than lifestyles in the West (as we know it largely does on a per capita basis).
Although I will say that this was a balance I was impressed by in ‘Before the Flood’ and if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it! It’s quite motivational and provides a broad overview of climate change issues and potential solutions.
My specific research interests are related to understanding the aspirations and lifestyles of this growing middle class. My work has generally centralised around housing and energy, which often results in a focus on space heating and cooling as that is the main use of energy, but I am also fascinated by how expectations of home vary across time and space. My PhD research developed the concept of ‘home comfort,’ drawing attention to broader concerns such as privacy which influence energy consumption but are generally overlooked by the mainstream focus on thermal comfort and energy efficiency in domestic energy research. I am arguing that privacy and expecting the home to be a place where you can ‘do what you want’ is related to decreasing household sizes and increasing space per person, which are critical determinants of energy demand per capita (this is the topic of my next paper and what I worked on writing this month). These are the sorts of trends that energy researchers and governments will have to engage with to reduce overall energy consumption, yet cannot simply or easily be addressed by improvements in energy efficiency.
Space per person is an issue that has been largely neglected in home heating/cooling research and energy policy, yet is critical to energy demand per person. The trend towards smaller households, which DECC (2013) and Wilson and Boehland (2005), Viggers et al. (2017) all suggest is a driver of a rise in domestic energy demand in the UK, US, Australia and New Zealand is an issue that cannot be addressed by making products and buildings more energy efficient. Simply improving the energy efficiency of the house perpetuates and encourages these sorts of trends because it sends the message that these are reasonable standards of living to expect. In fact, a small house built to moderate energy performance standards generally requires less energy than a large house built to very high standards (Wilson and Boehland, 2005) and targeting these social norms and expectations could make huge reductions in domestic energy.
I have been inspired by Dr Ritsuko Ozaki’s work comparing homes in Japan and the UK which expertly highlights how culture affects house form as well as other cross-country comparisons in energy research (Wilhite et al., 1996) because these emphasise taken-for-granted norms and assumptions about everyday life. I would like to explore how culture impacts expectations and use of space in the home, of course this will vary within countries as well (low/high income, rural/urban), to present a richer picture of socio-material factors shaping energy consumption. Clearly, this is no small task and I was lucky enough to secure an International Exchange Grant from the Energy Technology Partnership to network with researchers at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, learn about housing and energy policies here, and stay in a few homes in China. In short, this trip was a rekkie to support a future grant application and establish connections with potential research collaborators.
In that sense, it has been a successful trip – I have met lots of exciting people and look forward to discussing, reading, writing and learning more about Chinese homes and culture. Unfortunately, I also have that academic guilt that I should have done so much more! During my trip to Melbourne in August I conducted interviews, but I was quite exhausted by the end of the trip and with my broken wrist (and resulting 6 weeks off work) I have not had time to analyse these. I am also teaching my first honours option module (Society, Sustainable Consumption and Implementing Change) so I wanted to have time to prep teaching and not return run down at the start of a busy semester. So it makes sense to focus on writing and reading and wrapping up other projects before starting a new one, and my following blogs about the trip are more observational than academic to help me set down some of the ideas that have started to unravel as the result of my trip.