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updated 2/17/2011 10:48:56 AM ET 2011-02-17T15:48:56

People who live in the biggest cities are most likely to recycle, volunteer for environmental organizations and participate in other "green" behaviors, found a new study, which surveyed urban dwellers in a variety of Chinese cities.

The study didn't consider whether city size also affects green living tendencies in other countries. But the choices people make in China are likely to have environmental consequences throughout the world in years to come, said lead researcher Jianguo "Jack" Liu, a sustainability scientist at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

"China is the largest country in the world, it has had the fastest growing economy in the last three decades, and urbanization is growing really fast," said Liu, who pointed out that China produces more carbon dioxide emissions than any other country. "Anything that happens in China now is affecting the rest of the world."

From a survey of more than 5,000 people in Chinese cities -- both huge and small -- Liu and colleagues analyzed responses to six environmental questions.

To get at how positively people's lives were impacting the environment, the questions asked them if, in the last year, they had sorted their garbage, talked about environmental issues with relatives or friends, recycled plastic packing bags, participated in environmental education programs or been involved in environmental litigation.

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Those behaviors were more common among residents of the biggest cities -- such as Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin -- than they were among people who lived in smaller cities the researchers report today in the British journal Environmental Conservation.

Contrary to theories that environmentalism is a privilege for the elite, their analyses showed that wealth and incomes did not explain why people in large cities were more environmentally active. Rather, simply being employed made the biggest difference -- probably in part, Liu said, because many Chinese companies and organizations encourage employees to take environmental action by doing things together like planting trees.

Big cities also see and feel the brunt of pollution and other environmental woes, possibly giving residents a bigger push to do something about those problems.

The findings offer a baseline for watching how environmental attitudes and behaviors change in China in the future, said Peter Raven, President Emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis.

With an exploding global population that has already pushed the limits of sustainable productivity, he said, these are the kinds of factors that will likely affect us all.

"China, the world's most populous country and second-largest economy, has a disproportionate effect on global sustainability that will grow rapidly in the years to come," Raven said. "By understanding and measuring attitudes, we can find ways to improve the situation for the Chinese people and all of us."

Even as more people in China are taking action to help the environment, Liu added, cities there continue to grow. And environmental issues remain a big concern.

"What we found was that in big cities, people are more likely to take environmental action," Liu said. "The big question is whether those actions will be enough."

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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