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Climate change has come for the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter

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China just finished one of its most disastrous summers on record, with record-breaking heat, drought, and wildfires leading to water shortages even into the fall. More than 900 million people — or about 64 percent of China’s population — faced brutal heat waves alone, highlighting how much further the nation has to go to protect itself against worsening climate-related disasters.

As weather historian Maximiliano Herrera told New Scientist magazine last month while the heat waves were ongoing, “There is nothing in world climatic history which is even minimally comparable to what is happening in China.” In at least 17 provinces, more than 240 cities saw temperatures exceeding 104 degrees Fahrenheit. (Normally, a metropolis like Chongqing, at the center of this heat wave in southwestern China, only sees temperatures as high as 92°F.) China’s largest river and freshwater lake mostly dried up, reaching record-low water levels due to drought, all while wildfires raged. As in the United States, while some places baked, others flooded.

All this is taking place as China, the world’s largest current emitter of greenhouse gases, has positioned itself as a leader on mitigating climate change. With President Xi Jinping committing to net zero carbon emissions by 2060, China is already investing heavily into clean energy domestically and plans to stop financing coal-fired power plants abroad.

However, while China has increasingly focused on carbon mitigation efforts over the last decade, the country is just beginning to seriously tackle the equally difficult question of adapting to the effects of climate change. China’s complex geography and large landmass spanning various types of climate zones have always made it vulnerable to extreme weather events like droughts and floods. Due to the worsening factor of climate change, Beijing will need to step up its game to future-proof the country. As the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports emphasize, both mitigation and adaptation work is key to reducing vulnerability to climate change — and China still has a long road ahead of it.

“The climate story is a China story”

As Jeremy Wallace, a professor at Cornell University focusing on the effects of Chinese politics on climate and cities, told me, “The climate story is a China story.” China’s rapid industrialization and recent rise to becoming the second largest global economy was mostly fueled by coal. As a result, China was responsible for 27 percent of global greenhouse emissions by 2019, the most in the world and greater than every country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and European Union combined. That carbon-heavy energy load helped drive prosperity and historic poverty reduction, but there was a steep environmental cost for China, too, including major air and water pollution, desertification, ecological devastation, and the rise of extreme weather events.

Anglers fish along the Huangpu River across from a coal-fired power station in Shanghai, China, on September 28, 2021.
Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images

Mounting concern and political pressure, mostly internal and to a lesser extent international, forced Beijing to act. Over the last two decades, the Chinese government passed domestic climate legislation, and made commitments to the international community, most notably when it signed the 2015 Paris agreement.

Scott Moore, director of China programs and strategic initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania, told me that the Chinese government acknowledged opportunity and risk, with the latter especially playing a big role in climate policymaking. “​Of the world’s large economies, China is probably the single most exposed to climate risk,” he said.

The first factor is that many major cities, like Shanghai or Tianjin, are located in low-lying coastal or river valley areas that are vulnerable to flooding. Second, glacier melt from China’s portion of the Tibetan plateau is increasing floods downstream. And finally, China’s highly urbanized landscape, and the concentration of population and infrastructure that comes with that, makes China more vulnerable to disasters like floods.

There’s self-interest, too. The Chinese government also saw a huge opportunity in investing in the global clean energy market, which today is worth trillions of dollars. “China is the world’s largest investor, developer, deployer, and manufacturer of clean energy across the board,” said Michael Davidson, professor of global policy and engineering at the University of California San Diego. China invested $380 billion in renewable energy in 2021 alone, accounting for almost half of new renewable energy capacity worldwide. Because of entrepreneurship and large government subsidies, the country has built out an enormous domestic network of wind and solar plants, and become the global leader on electric vehicles.

Beachgoers walk near wind turbines along the coast of Pingtan in southern China’s Fujian province on August 6.
Ng Han Guan/AP

These changes are reflected in the very air that people living in China breathe, with the air quality in cities like Beijing markedly improving over the past decade. “It’s hard to say that they’re lagging” on tackling climate change, Davidson told me, and indeed, a recent report by Carbon Brief found China’s carbon emissions have seen their longest decline in a decade.

On the adaptation side, despite the severity of the current floods, far fewer people are dying today from floods in China than they used to. Floods are a historic problem in China, but because the Chinese government invested in flood control over the past two decades, the risk of death isn’t as high as it used to be, Moore told me, when the worst floods could kill people in the millions. The flood adaptation measures included the construction of large dams and reservoirs, but also the improvement of early warning systems and emergency management strategies such as evacuation.

The dam projects came with sizable environmental and human costs, ironically, including the destruction of wetlands that may have otherwise absorbed floodwater. Floods in recent years have also called the effectiveness of megaprojects like the Three Gorges Dam, the largest hydroelectric project ever created, into question. The central government recently acknowledged the unintended side effects in its climate adaptation strategy, finally passing a wetlands protection law last year to not only conserve but restore wetlands. China is also increasingly embracing nature-based solutions like “sponge cities,” retrofitting and designing cities to better absorb floodwaters, which could help reduce the severity of future floods.

Beyond its carbon mitigation efforts, the Chinese government also released an updated climate adaptation plan in June to better prepare the country by 2035. Its aims include improving early warning systems for extreme weather, shoring up food security, and boosting conservation efforts both inland and along the coast. Notably, the plan is a follow-up to a 2013 adaptation plan that heralded China’s “war on pollution” and led to China decreasing as much air pollution in seven years as the US did in three decades. This new plan will hopefully be similarly ambitious, because it aims to have a nationwide climate impact and risk assessment system by 2035. This would ensure major infrastructure projects consider potential environmental consequences, like the aforementioned dams used to control flooding and generate hydropower.

China has a plan to adapt, but is it enough?

Still, for whatever progress China has made toward mitigating climate change, its adaptation strategies may not be enough to meet the current moment. The consequences of climate change are coming faster than most governments, policymakers, and even scientists anticipated. “The reality we’re facing now is that the carbon emissions that are already in the atmosphere are baked in for a period of time,” said Jonas Nahm, professor of energy, resources, and environment at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “Things are going to get worse before they get better, even if we do everything to meet the Paris agreement models.”

Firefighters deliver water to residents due to a shortage amid a heat wave, in Loudi, China, on August 24.
STR/AFP via Getty Images

The realities of the baked-in effects of climate change were in full view in Sichuan, the southwestern province at the center of this summer’s heat wave and drought. Hydropower systems there faced a serious electricity shortfall due to reservoirs and rivers drying up. “For all of this sort of anticipation, and planning, China’s also scrambling to try to figure out how to respond to this in the same way that the Europeans are with all these rivers running dry,” Nahm told me.

While hydropower makes up 16 percent of China’s total power production (almost equal to its other renewable energy sources combined), it’s more than 80 percent of Sichuan’s power production, and in fact, it usually has so much excess hydropower that it delivers a third of what it produces to the rest of the country. However, drought affected Sichuan’s hydropower generation, and because it couldn’t curb its power sharing with other provinces, rolling blackouts had to be implemented to prevent the grid from being overwhelmed by demand. Even as the drought eases, there are worries that Sichuan and other parts of China will face power shortages in the winter.

“You’ve seen over the last several years that some of the existing infrastructure just isn’t prepared,” said Nahm. A key example of this is the South-North Water Transfer Project, the largest water diversion project in history, and perhaps even the most expensive infrastructure ever built, period. Built over the past two decades, the project aimed to bring water from water-abundant southern China to water-scarce northern China, which, despite containing around half the country’s population, only has about 20 percent of the country’s total water supply.

The Hongze Station, part of the South-North Water Transfer Project in Huai’an, Jiangsu province, in January.
Wan Zheng/Costfoto/Future Publishing via Getty Images

But at best, the South-North Water Transfer Project has served as a Band-Aid to buy the government more time, and has done little to solve the issue of water scarcity. More damning, it has actually worsened the issue of water pollution. As Jennifer Turner, director of the Wilson Center’s China Environment Forum, told me, water pollution doesn’t make the headlines like air pollution, but is probably China’s biggest environmental problem. And the water pollution problem is so bad that it actually exacerbates China’s water scarcity problem. The resources that went into this megaproject could have gone to less flashy solutions like better collection of rainwater and water recycling. Ultimately, Turner said, the Chinese government has to address both the short and long term if it wants to fix its water problems.

China’s infrastructure issues go beyond just its water projects, however. Wallace, the Cornell professor, said China may also need to fundamentally rethink how it builds urban areas. As in the US, Chinese cities have a tendency toward sprawl that is more polluting and carbon-intensive. “Once you build the city,” Wallace said, “it’s really hard to go back, right?” There is some research to suggest that sprawling cities have to deal with more extreme heat events than do more compactly designed cities.

In the meantime, UC San Diego’s Davidson told me, there are still things China could do to protect provinces like Sichuan from extreme weather in the future. For one, the central government could ensure that it has a more unified power system that can better respond to energy shocks, such as a spike in demand for air conditioning when it’s boiling hot.

Another is better urban design: More efficient air conditioning, better insulation, planning, and cooling centers can help Chinese cities better cope when there’s a heat wave. China could also improve monitoring systems for extreme weather, support the agriculture sector, reevaluate current infrastructure projects, and bolster reforestation and flood control efforts to not only control flooding but also prepare for future drought scenarios.

With the advent of its new 2035 climate adaptation plan, which will implement a road map to bolster China’s risk assessment and its “climate-sensitive sectors,” it appears the Chinese government is looking to implement many of these policies. But this will require upending what Nahm described to me as the economic and engineering approach that China has largely taken to its infrastructure up to this point, green or otherwise. Rather than building dams or water diversion systems, China will have to double down on nature-based solutions.

Workers plant new trees on a mountain in China’s Hebei province, on April 27, 2020.
Costfoto/Future Publishing via Getty Images

At an environmental conference in Beijing, Ge Le, director of the climate change and energy program at the Nature Conservancy in China, pointed to recent reforestation efforts in China and trying to integrate more greenery into cities, like the aforementioned sponge cities, as positive examples for China to expand on. She also brought up the oyster reef restoration projects in Alabama, which aim to strike a balance between ecological restoration, climate adaptation (as reefs function as seawalls), and commercial benefit for the communities that harvest oysters.

To some observers, China’s catastrophic summer may appear to be an indictment of Beijing not having done enough to meet the current climatic moment. But the truth is that China has done a lot to mitigate the effects of climate change, as well as adapt to its effects. And while the Chinese government could certainly do more, the unveiling of the 2035 adaptation plan makes it clear that there is a lot more to come. The problem facing Beijing, then, is the same faced by Washington, Brussels, and elsewhere: Climate change is already here, and things are going to get worse before they get better. China, like the rest of the world, is going to have to buckle in and work harder than ever.

Source: vox