LONDON -- China may have emerged from the climate change summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, last December as a target for recrimination over targets, timetables and historic and future responsibilities, but back home the picture is somewhat different.
Foreign nongovernmental organizations and even home-grown civil society groups have had a notoriously difficult relationship with Chinese authorities. For example, Chinese colleges were ordered in February to sever all ties with Oxfam, which was accused by the education ministry of having a hidden political agenda.
But other groups are beginning to make some headway. The Jane Goodall Institute has its "Roots and Shoots" youth environmental education program operating in nine schools and clubs in Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin, and the British Council has been operating its "Climate Cool, Green Your School" teacher training program for three years now.
The program, which takes the climate change message into Chinese classrooms via training the teachers is going strong with the active support and participation of Chinese officials.
"I am not aware of any other NGO that is able to have the access that we do in China," a British Council spokesman told ClimateWire. "We have very good links with the Chinese government."
Annual workshops run by the Global Action Plan environmental charity on behalf of the British Council take several hundred Chinese secondary school teachers at a time and provide them with a combination of presentations and interactive participation sessions on complex climate issues. The teachers then take the messages and the Western teaching methods back into their schools and their classrooms.
"Through a multiplier effect and based on class and school sizes, we estimate that the workshops we ran in April this year will reach about 1 million pupils," said project leader Jenni Wiggle of GAP. "The teachers are very much looking at future solutions. They are very into that. One line we take is 'you have the opportunity not to make the mistakes that we in the West made.'"
Although the British Council is the U.K. government's cultural export arm, the Chinese government sanctions the training sessions and local officials enthusiastically support them.
"We work with Chinese officials and they are very positive about what we are doing even though our material centers a lot on critical thinking," Wiggle said. "We do not enter into the political sphere. But many of the teachers who attend our workshops are very much activists in climate change. I am sure they take that back into their schools."
"To them, workshops have in the past meant being lectured. We go for participation instead. We break things down into bite-sized bits and get them to build them up. They love that and respond," she added.
Climate change enters the public discussion
For Isabel Hilton of China Dialogue, a website she set up four years ago to shine a penetrating light onto the environmental problems facing the vast and booming country, the activities of the Goodall Institute and the British Council are not alone, but they are rare.
"The Chinese authorities have always been wary of foreign NGOs. But they are also only too well aware of the huge environmental challenges they face," Hilton said.
"When we started up nearly four years ago there was virtually no public discussion of climate change. Since then the whole landscape has changed and there is much more broad discussion of the issues around it -- even the skeptics who view it as a ploy by the West to hold China back. That makes it very interesting.
"This is not out of line with government policy. They know they have a major problem with the environment and have to deal with it," Hilton added.
Although the GAP-trained teachers are drawn from the big cities and the elite schools in them, they come from all over the vast country so the experiences and the problems they face differ widely, and they learn from each other too.
"In one area it may be water pollution, in another air pollution and in another soil pollution. Teachers give presentations to the group so the knowledge spreads," Wiggle said.
One project that has taken root directly out of the workshops is schools starting to grow their own food and make their own compost with food waste.
It sounds simple enough, but Wiggle said she encountered an interesting and unexpected problem at the outset. "The schools are urban-based and so are the pupils. There was a social stigma attached to growing their own food. The attitude we found was 'that is something farmers, the peasants, do. We are in the city. We don't,'" she said.
And while it might have been expected that there would have been a degree of defensiveness among the Chinese teachers after the recriminations at China immediately following Copenhagen, that in fact was not the case.
A positive reaction from teachers
China, which last year moved into pole position as the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, refused to agree to make a binding commitment to reduce emissons, arguing vehemently that its per capita emissions were a quarter of those of the United States and it still had to lift its hundreds of millions of poor out of poverty.
Instead, the rich West -- and in particular the United States -- had caused the warming problem and therefore had an overriding responsibility to deal with it, Beijing argued, although it did agree to voluntarily reduce the carbon intensity of its economy.
The standoff triggered a last-minute scramble that produced the nonbinding Copenhagen Accord with promises of large amounts of money from the West and an agreement to try to limit global temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by the end of this century but with no indication of how that goal might be achieved.
"Copenhagen did come up during the April workshops, but not in the way you would have expected," Wiggle said. "There was an attitude of, 'Oh! The politicians have not succeeded, so what must we do now to make it work?' It was surprisingly positive, not resigned."
"The teachers and pupils see what they have and what people in the United States have, and quite understandably they aspire to that lifestyle," Wiggle said. "Our message is sustainability. We ask them to get their pupils to aspire to a positive and sustainable lifestyle, not simply to follow the economic model as it looks now."
"It is all about individual choice and its impacts," she said. "Delivering behavioral change is our goal. There is an element of changing things of course, but also of continuing to do the things they already do right."
Tightening rules and slumping budgets
Still, foreign NGOs need to tread carefully and indulge in careful self-censorship if they are not to run afoul of Chinese authorities, torn between the urgent need to move forward on climate and environmental issues and the fear of a grassroots revolution.
"We have seen a progressive tightening of the rules in recent years. and several domestic civil society groups have been closed down as being subversive. Look at the Oxfam ejection," said one seasoned China specialist, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "These issues are very tricky. You may be OK as long as you don't overstep the bounds, but they are not always clear and they can move."
The Chinese schools project is just one of many that GAP, founded in the United Kingdom in 1993 by Trewin Restorick as a direct result of the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in Brazil the previous year, is involved in.
It works with schools, businesses and local authorities, always spreading the green message at the local level and now has branches in 17 countries. The program last year in China focused on waste. This year it was energy and next it is intended to be biodiversity.
"We hope it will keep running for years to come. China is such a vast country and there are so many people to reach," Wiggle said. "But it is down to funding. The British Council gets its budget on an annual basis, so we have to wait and see."