Student transforms her environmental passion into action
With a mushroom hairstyle and wearing round glasses and a sports shirt, Wu Guanzhuo looks like many of her fellow senior high school students in China who are studying as hard as they can to secure places at universities amid fierce competition.
However, Wu stands out. At the age of 16 she already has considerable experience of being involved in environmental and climate change issues.
Flying for a total of about 30 hours from her hometown of Shenyang, capital of Liaoning province, Northeast China, to the Polish city of Katowice for the UN Climate Change Conference, which ended at the weekend, is just the latest example of her environmental enthusiasm.
Wu, a grade three student from Northeast Yucai Foreign Language School in Shenyang, said, “Several senior students in my school took part in the UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany, last year. They thought that participation was very significant for them.
“Not only could they learn about the progress made in negotiations by joining the sideline events, they could also familiarize themselves with environmental initiatives made by people of varying ages from other countries, or the efforts of some NGOs in safeguarding the environment.”
With only a limited knowledge of climate change, Wu’s interest in the issue was triggered by the terrible air quality in Shenyang. “As a resident, I think I have the responsibility to do something to improve it,” she said.
Bad air quality is connected to climate change because the pollution stems from fossil energy consumption for heating in winter, which discharges a large amount of carbon dioxide, she said, adding, “Many see this air pollution, but they fail to realize the high concentrations of carbon dioxide.”
Willing to learn something new at this year’s conference, Wu said she felt helpless after hearing that countries across the world had yet to make adequate efforts to address the urgent issue of climate change as carbon emissions continued to increase.
“I read a paper recently, which said many people around the world have yet to realize that global warming is taking place. They don’t think it will affect their lives — this is a serious issue,” she said, adding that she is worried, as she does not see how the problem can be solved.
Wu said she drew some “positives” from Katowice, including the fact that many people were now contributing their own ideas to address climate change.
As an example, she said a foreign NGO had exhibited a type of brick that absorbs carbon dioxide to help remove this gas from the air.
Last year, Wu organized a mock climate change conference that attracted about 50 students from two schools. They were separated into three teams representing developed countries, emerging nations, and least-developed and island countries.
All three groups had to speak for the countries they represented, ignoring their own nationality. “The students gathered for one hour a day and the negotiations lasted for a week, but produced no results,” she said.
Wu said her enthusiasm for the environment is largely due to her parents. Her mother once worked for a government body that oversees public parks, and her father graduated from an agricultural university. “Both of them like plants very much,” she added.
A printing factory in her hometown led to her turning this passion into action. Wastewater from the factory was discharged into rivers in Shenyang, killing many fish. After turning to a lawyer for help, Wu was told to collect evidence to prepare for a lawsuit. She did as suggested.
“Two big dogs guarded the entrance to the factory. To collect samples, my classmates and I bought some chicken to attract the dogs’ attention, so that we could enter,” she said.
Wu and her classmates won the lawsuit about one week after the hearing started. The factory was ordered to close and decided not to appeal.
After the case, Wu and some of her classmates launched a student association named after a Chinese expression, hai yan he qing, which means “the world is at peace and the river has been cleaned”.
The association now has members from nearly all the schools in Shenyang, but Wu does not know the precise number.
“As an informal organization, we never take the initiative to enroll new members, as many choose to join voluntarily,” she said.
“I think this sends out very good signals. If you force someone to take part in environmental activities, they may never understand the real significance of doing that. If they participate willingly, this means they are fully aware of the significance and want to contribute,” she said.