The power to make change: How a UK education can have a positive impact on the environment
Ni Huan is a leading figure in East China’s environmental movement, with two decades worth of experience in developing and managing international projects with multinational corporations, international organisations and governmental agencies.
Huan also works as part of a policy task force advising the G20 on sustainable development and education around climate change, and as such, she is currently the only Chinese expert in the G20’s policy briefing groups.
This degree, and her time in the UK, provided inspiration for much of her subsequent career. And it helped her to create what would become Green Light Year - an environmental NGO which promotes environmentally sustainable lifestyles in communities, schools and businesses in Shanghai, Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Shandong and other regions of East China.
A lifelong passion
I have always been very passionate about environmental protection and in 2004, I was lucky enough to pursue my master’s in Development Studies at the University of Cambridge, undertaken with the help of a Chevening Scholarship.
Before this, I had never been abroad in my life. But I had worked for a project in Chengdu for nearly four years, which had been funded by the UK’s Department for International Development. It was here that I learned about corporate social responsibility and sustainable development from a group of British experts.
And so the UK was always on my wish list of places to visit and study. I knew of its impressive reputation, its high quality of research and that it was a global leader in education.
My studies in Cambridge were both colourful and enlightening. It was here that I realised the importance of lifelong education, and of applying your learning in a way that will make a difference.
During my studies, I applied for a small grant to do a business trip to Norwich to attend a conference organised by a local Chamber of Commerce. This was a ‘match-making’ event for banks to meet eligible business clients. Bank managers spoke about environmental standards, urging small and medium enterprises to talk to environmental experts to avoid violating laws and regulations. It was great to hear this, as these were exactly the kind of Green Finance policies that China advocates for.
Even after my studies, I was able to maintain strong links with UK industry. In early 2009 I worked with a think tank under the then Ministry of Environmental Protection on green finance policy research in collaboration with UK-based organisations. I visited many excellent low carbon advisory companies and financial organisations in London, and was able to introduce their expertise to industrial associations in China’s high-emission sectors, and also to its banking sector.
The work I do now is about promoting sustainable lifestyles for everyone. That means for people in schools, in businesses and society as a whole. While In Cambridge, I had noted how my senior neighbours were fans of nature and wildlife. They organised regular study tours in their local communities, so that other residents could learn about the history of the local birds and plants and to see how climate change was impacting these local species.
I drew inspiration from this, and with two neighbourhood mothers in Shanghai, I designed and implemented China’s first ever ‘Low Carbon Tour’ to educate people about their own communities and how adopting low-carbon and sustainable ways of living can be beneficial to both them, and the world in general. The tour has been a great success and, in the first year alone, we attracted more than 5000 people to take part, and to look at changes they can make in their own lives.
A simple and effective way to do this is converting to new forms of energy. In 2013, my family and I moved into a new property just before a dreadfully hot summer here in Shanghai. The heat inspired us to install solar panels in our front yard - and we became the first home to install thin film solar panels in mainland China, even though our country is the largest producer of such panels in the world .
You see; the main problem is that most people simply do not know about the benefit of such changes, and so you can see how important education and sharing knowledge is.
The power to make change
The common issue for many cities, and not just in China, is that we live in limited space, and we need to think about how to use that space. Here, the government recognises the environmental challenges we face as a country - such as our reliance on fossil fuel - and that it needs to find affordable and practical solutions.
I continue to draw many inspirations from my time in the UK, and to apply the creative academic skills I learned there to help in this important aim.
People in my local community can now see the positive changes we have made in our own family - with solar panels, a new electric car, and also with composters that we have installed - and see how this can save money on their energy bills and consumption while benefiting the environment.
That’s why I am very proud of our work with Green Light Year. In a modern society where community interaction isn’t the norm, we have been able to devise new ideas and to share those with others. It is rewarding to do this - something that people can learn from and which can have such a positive impact.
Professionally, this has been very rewarding too. In 2018, I won the ‘GGEF Women Eco Game Changer Awards - Asia Eco Innovator’ Award, a ‘Green Guard’ award and also one of China’s prestigious ‘Mother River’ awards, a prominent honour recognising contributions to ecological conservation.