A disappointing business

China's greenest entrepreneurs went to Copenhagen amid great fanfare but many were left asking what they actually achieved. Feng Jie reports.

On returning from the climate conference at Copenhagen, the Vanke Group chairman, Wang Shi, posted a picture of himself pushing an old bike through the streets of the city on his blog. On December 7, the head of the largest property company in China – who climbs an 8,000-metre high mountain every year – had joined a group of Chinese businessmen on a week-long cycling tour around the city, after which he announced the saving of 115 kilograms of carbon.

The trip was quickly branded a mere stunt. But Wang did not seem to mind, saying that, unlike actors, the businessmen were playing themselves and that he hoped to see more, and better, such events in the future. Afterwards, he and his companions made numerous appearances in the Chinese media, talking about Copenhagen and advocating low-carbon ideas.

On December 5, Wang and Feng Lun, chairman of Beijing Vantone Real Estate, were chosen to board the “Climate Express”, a special train from Brussels to Copenhagen organised by the United Nations Environment Program, the International Union of Railways and the World Wildlife Fund. Another group of “green entrepreneurs”, including Marjorie Yang, chairwoman of textile manufacturer Esquel Group; Zhang Yue, chairman of Broad Air-conditioning; Zhang Zaidong, chairman of Beijing Fengshang Real Estate; Song Jun, president of hotel and travel investment firm Beijing Jiuhan Tiancheng and Huang Ming, chairman of Himin Solar Energy Group travelled north from Germany with Lu Zhi, Peking University professor and head of the Shanshui Conservation Centre. They met with Deutsche Bank’s climate finance team in Frankfurt, visited Europe’s solar-power “capital”, Freiburg, and then joined the property group in Copenhagen.

This was the first time Chinese entrepreneurs had attended a UN climate-change conference as observers and a rare high-profile appearance at an international climate-change event. Hopes were high for these enlightened businessmen, both in China and overseas. So what did they actually do?

At a small ceremony to mark the start of the trip held at Beijing’s exclusive Chang’an Club, they said they wanted to put forward the Chinese business world’s stance on climate change, and learn about the business risks and opportunities it will bring. On December 8, they set out this stance at their first appearance in Copenhagen. This took place away from the Bella Center, the main conference facility, at the five-star Radisson hotel, where Chinese premier Wen Jiabao would later stay. Unfortunately very few foreign reporters were present and almost all the attendees were Chinese. So why, those present wondered, couldn’t they just have held the press conference in China?

On December 11, these business leaders were not present at the Business Day event, hosted by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBSCD) and the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC).

The WBCSD has 200 members, including Shell, Duke Energy, E.ON, BP and Rio Tinto. At Copenhagen the WBCSD advocated a global carbon market and a voluntary industrial code, covering industry, agricultural oil use, nuclear power and carbon capture and storage. The ICC, a similar organisation whose members include several major polluters such as Areva, Exxon Mobil and Vattenfall, continued to tell political leaders that business is part of the solution and that economic growth and free trade should be given priority.

The reason the Chinese group was absent was simpler than many thought. The head of the delegation, Wang Shi, had already left Copenhagen due to a prior engagement and the other members, for the most part having poor English and little experience of international events, were not too keen to attend – and so they didn’t.

As head of one of the world’s largest property firms, Wang Shi was undoubtedly the most prominent member of the delegation. In 2007, Vanke started to use reusable steel frames in buildings, rather than the traditional wood. Over the past three years, this method has been applied to 600,000 square metres of building space and, after Copenhagen, Wang set a new target of two million square metres. His ambitions do not stop there, however. Wang wants to lead China’s property sector in making a contribution of more than 10% to China’s 2020 emissions target.

Wang told all of this to the Wall Street Journal and Daily Telegraph newspapers while he was on the Climate Express, to widespread acclaim. And so his early departure, to a certain extent, reduced the voice of Chinese business at Copenhagen. More disappointing was the fact that, although the Business Day was on the agenda provided at the pre-departure press conference and was widely reported in both Chinese and western media, not a single Chinese businessperson was seen at the actual event.

However, the Business Day, which brought together chief executives of giant multinationals, was also lacking attendees from South Africa, Brazil and India. Moreover, those who did attend did not gain much. As Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change told them, the negotiations going on at the Bella Center were inter-governmental and the participants temporarily had to put business to one side.

The delegation was more influenced by events not on the agenda; namely, the civil society activities they attended as private individuals, such as marches organised by non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Song Jun of the Jiuhan Tiancheng, commented that the range of protests by NGO members gave him more to think about than the disorganised negotiations and dull reports and made him more determined than ever to keep his business on a green path. This entrepeneur, often criticised for being too idealistic, has always tried to persuade more people to accept traditional Chinese ideas of conservation, calling for a limit on human demands rather than technical solutions to environmental and climate issues.

In 2002, Song started investing in the Moonlight Lake eco-tourism project in the deserts of Inner Mongolia, in northern China. But it is hard to stick to environmental ideals in today’s China and he has suffered a number of financial setbacks, only making a profit after five or six years. Next he plans to implement his new grasslands conservation plan in Xilin Gol, which aims to bring back herders forced to leave by environmental problems. The plan won support from Wang Shi and Zhang Zaidong at Copenhagen – perhaps the most concrete result Song got from the summit.

Regardless, many people were left disappointed by the performance of these entrepreneurs at Copenhagen. Like the Chinese government, the Chinese business world has, over the last few years, been striving to improve communications and keep up with the global response to climate change and environmental protection. But getting that message across fully and accurately still needs work.

However, some are doing better than others. The story of how Zhang Yue of Broad Air-conditioning gave up his private jet is well known. And Broad’s non-electric air-conditioners were the focus of the only corporate case study in a report presented to G8 leaders by former UK prime minister Tony Blair in 2008. Zhang came and went at Copenhagen, clutching his own document, Measures to Reduce CO2 Emissions. He believes that there is huge potential for emissions reductions to be made by the Chinese public, though nobody knows how he has worked this out.

Many are also familiar with the story of Huang Ming’s solar empire and he was one of the delegation’s most active speakers. He also organised a football match to urge countries not to pass the buck on climate change and, on returning to China, called for COP18, the UN-sponsored climate summit scheduled for 2012, to be held in China. Shi Zhengrong of solar firm Suntech Power is even better known internationally. In May 2009, he was the only Chinese entrepreneur from the private sector to appear at the World Business Summit on Climate Change in Copenhagen. Unfortunately he was not able to be present at COP15.

But, for these business personalities, whether they come across well or badly is not the important thing. Wang Shi, Zhang Yue and Song Jun are more concerned about the weak message sent out by Copenhagen. Without a clear, strong and long signal, it is hard for businesses to make investment decisions – even for these pioneers who have not hestitated in going with the green flow.

Feng Jie is a journalist at
Southern Weekend and was formerly a reporter at the China Economic Herald.

Homepage image from shows (left to right) Song Jun, Feng Lun, Wang Shi, Zhang Yue and Zhang Zaidong.