Is China ready for climate change?

Once again, China’s ability to handle a changing climate is being tested.

In 2013, rainfall in south China’s Yunnan province dropped 70 percent below average levels. This, combined with similar rainfall decline over the past three years, has turned the once water-abundant region into a much drier place.

China is among the countries most vulnerable to climate change. An extreme weather event like Yunnan’s years-long drought is just one of many problems it faces. Sea level rise threatens coastal Chinese cities. The nation is also seeing smaller glaciers and larger areas afflicted by invasive insects, suggesting the impacts of global warming are already occurring.

However, China’s responses to these impacts remain largely insufficient. Although the government here claims adapting to climate change is equally important as mitigating its causes, there is a huge gap between developments in these two areas.

Little known in adaptation

China has set a goal of reducing the carbon intensity of its economy by 40 to 45 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, but it lacks concrete goals on adaptation. The country last year spent over $88 billion in deploying low-emission technologies and using renewable energy, while its expenditure for adaptation was merely $7.6 billion.

“That’s because taking actions to address adaptation is much more difficult than to address mitigation,” explained Lu Xuedu, advisor to the Asian Development Bank. “So far, how to adapt to a changing climate has been a global challenge, and not a single country knows the answer.”

Lacking robust scientific guidelines is a key reason. Even with the most advanced models, scientists have trouble accurately predicting the impacts climate change will have on specific areas, information which is essential for adaptation planning. “So if policymakers don’t know with precision what future climate will be, how can they plan adaptation accordingly?” Lu said.

Chinese officials also view adaptation as less urgent than mitigation, says Yang Fuqiang, senior advisor at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

As Yang explained, China is under international pressure to lower its emissions, but there is no such pressure to adapt to climate change. Additionally, many mitigation measures like generating power from solar panels instead of coal can also help curb air pollution – another problem for which Chinese citizens are increasingly demanding a solution. Adaptation co-benefits may not be as obvious.

Water, agriculture and sea level rise

But adaptation is seriously needed in China. Yang says, unlike Europe and the United States, China’s infrastructure remains outdated and its ecosystem is fragile, leaving the country unable to cope with natural disasters caused by a changing climate.

According to Lu, who is also former Deputy Director General of China’s National Climate Center, Beijing has given priority to the aspects of adaptation that present the biggest challenge.

Agriculture comes first because crop production here is largely at the mercy of the weather and China’s food security is increasingly threatened due to climate change. Water management is drawing great attention too, as droughts and floods have increased in frequency and severity. Much support is also being directed at addressing sea level rise, since many of the country’s economic powerhouses are only a few meters above sea level. Shanghai is now considering building a floodgate near the Yangtze estuary to control seawater flowing into the river.

There is also a call to coordinate infrastructure construction with climate adaptation. Although it is not mandatory, Chinese officials asked developers to take climate change impacts into account when planning new railways, hydroelectric plants and other large-scale projects.

“The Chinese government is working on preventive measures for potential blows rooted in climate change,” Lu said. “Such practice is still in the early stage but it is definitely in the right direction.”

Global warming is causing permafrost on which the Qinghai-Tibet railway is built to start melting, but railway engineers dug the foundation deeper to offset the change. Photo credit: Flickr

Seeking help from private sector

Other practices have already been in use for years, although not in the name of adaptation, says Li Lailai, who directs the China office of the World Resources Institute. For instance, China has planted more forests than any other country to combat erosion and desertification, and this also helps secure water supply during extraordinary dry weather.

Yet, “there are still considerable efforts to be made in the future,” Li said. “The core of adaptation is to increase the resilience of people, livelihoods and ecosystems.”

To do so in China, an estimated $23.7 billion to $27.2 billion annually will be needed for an adaptation fund, which the government cannot afford alone, according to Wu Changhua, the Greater China Director of the Climate Group.

Therefore, Chinese companies must play a role, Wu says. For instance, if insurers could better estimate the economic damages climate change might cause, they would be more willing to develop services to assist with adaptation. This would help defray government expenses on disaster relief, and allow it to concentrate resources more on preventative measures.

For now, few companies provide that service. But Wu says Chinese policymakers have recognized they need help and are considering establishing pilots in certain regions, in a move to explore technical and financial models that can help adapt to climate change.


Photo Credit: Coco Liu