Chinese Family Takes Carbon Challenge With a car, a country villa and frequent travel, the Shengs, a family of three, readily admit they emit more carbon dioxide than the average Chinese family. But how does their "carbon footprint" stack up against an American family's?
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Chinese Family Takes Carbon Challenge

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Chinese Family Takes Carbon Challenge

Chinese Family Takes Carbon Challenge

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.


NORRIS: All this week we've been talking about climate change and China as part of our series Climate Connections with National Geographic.

Today, one last report from my recent trip to China. Over the past year, you may have heard about something called a carbon footprint. That's the impact we have on the environment measured by the amount of carbon dioxide we produce.

Last spring, our science reporter, David Kestenbaum, visited the Sheppard family of North Carolina to measure their carbon footprint. They were working hard to cut back on energy use. Claudia Sheppard talked to David about getting her church involved.


BLOCK: Our church had a fast from carbon for Lent.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: A fast from carbon?

BLOCK: Uh-huh.

KESTENBAUM: So instead of giving up chocolate...

BLOCK: You would...

KESTENBAUM: gave up carbon.

BLOCK: Carbon, right. You would hang up your laundry to dry, or something like that.

NORRIS: In the end, the Sheppards found that their carbon dioxide emissions were about 40 percent lower than the average North Carolina family. That is, until you added in their air travel.

While I was in Beijing last month, I wanted to calculate the carbon footprint of a Chinese household. So I paid a visit to the Sheng family.

BLOCK: Hi. (Chinese spoken)


NORRIS: Hello.


BLOCK: Hello. Very nice to meet you.

BLOCK: (Chinese spoken)

NORRIS: That's Sheng Jiali speaking English. She's 27 and goes by the English name Scarlett.

BLOCK: Scarlett. Very nice to meet you.

She lives with her mother, Wang Xianrong and her dad, Sheng Jingjiang and their dog, Teddy.

BLOCK: Teddy (Chinese spoken)

BLOCK: It's probably accurate to say the Shengs are upper-middle class by Beijing's standards. Their home is a modern, three-bedroom apartment in Central Beijing. It has white walls, a tile floor, a huge flat-screen television and in the middle of the living room, a black leather chair that looks like something you'd see in a Star Wars movie.

Is this your massage chair?


BLOCK: Uh-huh.

BLOCK: My parents'. Sometimes I will use it.

BLOCK: (Speaking in foreign language)

NORRIS: Mr. Sheng gives us a demonstration.

BLOCK: (Speaking in foreign language)

BLOCK: Usually for the back.

NORRIS: So, from head to toe.

BLOCK: Yeah.

NORRIS: It goes all the way down your back and your legs and your feet?

BLOCK: Yeah.

NORRIS: After that, we tour the rest of the house.

BLOCK: And this is the kitchen.

BLOCK: (Speaking in foreign language)

NORRIS: The galley-style kitchen is average in size for a Chinese home, but cozy by U.S. standards, about 8 feet long by 6 feet wide. The refrigerator is much smaller than the average American model, and there's no oven, just two gas burners for cooking. Their washing machine is in one of their two bathrooms, but there's no separate dryer. They hang their clothes on one of their balconies.

BLOCK: (Speaking in foreign language)

NORRIS: You air dry your clothing?

BLOCK: Yeah. Beijing is very dry, so it's not necessary for us to dry it.

NORRIS: The Shengs recycle bottles, cans, magazines, and newspapers. And we did spot a few energy-saving light bulbs throughout the apartment.

BLOCK: (Speaking in foreign language).

NORRIS: Still, Mr. Sheng is the first to admit that they are not a particularly frugal household when it comes to energy use. We sit down at the family's small dining table to munch on pistachios, strawberries and candied dates, and to start tallying up the numbers.

BLOCK: (Through translator) We've been living here for nine years. On average, our electricity use comes to about 100 kilowatts per hour per month.

NORRIS: Mr. Sheng notes that they use less electricity in winter than in summer, when they run their air conditioner.

BLOCK: (Through translator) For cooking, we use natural gas. That comes to about 30 cubic meters every month.

NORRIS: The heating is also natural gas, but it's provided by the building. So they don't know how much they use. So we move on to transportation. They have one car, a Honda.

BLOCK: (Speaking in foreign language)


NORRIS: Mr. Sheng jokes that since his wife retired last year, she's become the family's driver. She takes him to work first and then takes their daughter. As with the Sheppards of North Carolina, the Shengs do travel quite a lot.

BLOCK: (Speaking in foreign language)

NORRIS: Two or three times a year, the whole family takes a two-and-a-half hour flight to the city of Chengdu. That's Scarlett's mother's hometown. And Mr. Sheng has a few work trips every year. And then, there's the home in the country, the villa finished just last year.

BLOCK: There used to be a farm out there. The air is better. There are more trees. It's much greener.

NORRIS: A second home, a symbol of China's growing wealth, is becoming more common, especially for families in heavily congested cities. The Shengs drive to their villa most weekends, and that adds to their monthly gasoline tab.

Over the past six months, Mr. Sheng estimates they've used about 1,000 cubic meters of natural gas. Some of that for cooking, but mostly for heating the second home over the winter. And then, of course, there's electricity use.

Once we return home to Washington, we added everything up, the two homes, the car, the air travel. We also took into account the fact that China gets most of its power from coal. And we found that the Sheng family produces just over 15 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year.

Again, that's not including the natural gas used to heat their downtown apartment, since they don't see the numbers for that. I asked our reporter David Kestenbaum to go over the numbers with me, starting with how the Shengs compared to the Sheppards.

KESTENBAUM: The Shengs are - they're living large, you know, they're not really trying to conserve. But, if you leave out the airplane, the air flight part, the Shengs in China and the Sheppards in North Carolina, are roughly - they have roughly the same carbon footprint. They're at least in the same ballpark. So this Chinese family that is not really trying is about the same as this U.S. family that is trying very hard.

NORRIS: So what if you do consider the air travel?

KESTENBAUM: If you add in air travel, it's no contest. The Sheppards put out about 13 metric tons of CO2 with their airplane habit and the Shengs only about 4 tons. So, basically the Sheppards, every year they fly either to Germany or to California to visit family and that's just a killer. They have four people in the family. The Shengs are flying, they only have three people in their family, but they're not flying that kind of distance.

NORRIS: Now, I should make a point about the Shengs, they're pretty well-off compared to most Chinese families, they're very comfortable, especially when you think about the rural population where there are 10 million people who don't even have electricity.

But they're not atypical for a rising middle-class family - particularly in a city like Beijing, in the capital. I met a number of families who actually have two homes, who have cars, who travel a lot more than they used to.

KESTENBAUM: Right. So, that's what a lot of people who worry about climate change worry about, is that you have people now who don't have electric bills because they don't have electricity, and one day, they're going to have cars and houses. And they also worry that the people that you saw, they're soon going to want two cars or SUVs or they're going to want to start flying, quite reasonably, longer distances and wanting to see the world.

China has a population of 1.3 billion people, and it's developing very, very quickly. So as the life improves in China, the situation for the world gets much more difficult in terms of climate change.

NORRIS: That's NPR's David Kestenbaum.

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