China is often painted as the villain of climate change it is the country with the highest greenhouse gas emissions after all. But what often isn’t mentioned is just how badly affected China will be by climate change. Already suffering from a legion of environmental problems these will be further amplified as it gets warmer. With a densely populated coastline and large areas at risk from droughts and flooding the impact of climate change will the severe.
In fact China ranks number one in the world in terms of number of people at risk from sea level rise (Vietnam is second). If sea levels rose by 1m 92,000 square kilometres of China’s coast would be inundated and 67 million people would be displaced. And sea levels could rise by 2 metres or even more this century!!! In a survey of the costs of sea level rise to the worlds cities Guangzhou was number 1 and there were a further 4 Chinese cities in the top 20. That means that assets worth many billions of dollars will be at risk while the costs of trying to protect them will also be colossal.
But it’s water of the fresh variety that poses the biggest threat to China. Both too much and too little of it. Last year floods in south west China killed over 50 people and caused over $1 billion of damage. Typhoon Rasmmasun the largest to make landfall in China for 40 years caused further flooding and damage. Such incidences are only likely to get worse as the climate gets warmer as in general wet places are anticipated to get wetter and dry places drier. This scenario already appears to be happening in China for while the South West was flooded the North was experiencing its worst drought since records started to be collected in 1951. In some provinces annual rainfall was less than 50% of the average and Henan Province one of the biggest grain producers in the country suffered losses of $1.2 billion. With much of the country arid and desertification and soil loss already posing massive problems questions begin to be raised over the country’s ability to feed itself. It’s estimated that grain yields will decline by from 3-10% with each 1C it gets warmer. If it got 3 degrees warmer which could be achieved within the next 40 – 50 years you could have a situation where China would need to feed an even higher population with a harvest two thirds of the size. And if it got to 4C warmer that would be game over.
According to World Bank estimates, 480 million Chinese, almost 40 percent of the population, are currently living in regions facing water scarcity. Water stress will be further compounded by the melting of the Himalayan glaciers. Millions of people are currently dependant on glacial meltwater that flows through the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers. The Tibetan Plateaux is currently warming far faster than the global average. The glaciers that feed these rivers are already melting and the melt rate will only increase as the earth warms. In the short term this will cause problems of flooding particularly as glacial lakes form which suddenly burst causing devastating flooding in the surrounding area. In the longer term this will cause problems further downstream as the river flow decreases. The natural run off volume of the Yangtze river could decline by 25% as a result.
Of course like other region China will face other problems due to climate change. The natural environment is already in pretty poor shape under pressure from urbanisation, industry and agriculture. Almost 40% of all species in China are already at risk from extinction. Climate change will only increase that pressure. That isn’t just bad from an “oh the poor fluffy animal” perspective. Humans are also highly dependent on the natural environment for water, air, soil, pollination, wood, food etc. etc. compromising the biosphere ability to provide those services.
A prime example of this is the state of China’s soil. 40% of the country’s soil is already degraded, suffering from reduced fertility, erosion, acidification and pollution. Climate change will serve to make this worse drying out soils and reducing the plant cover making the soil more prone to wind erosion whilst increases in rain intensity will exacerbate water erosion.
But it’s the potential collapse in agricultural production which will have the biggest human impact. With millions facing starvation and it’s farmland turning to dust China may well start to jealously eye its neighbour to the north who’s agricultural production will be expanding as a warmer world expands its growing season. Unfortunately that neighbour is Russia who is likely to be very protective of its resources and has a large army and nukes. Meanwhile to the south India will be experiencing an even greater food crisis. A frightening prospect.
Yet the future is literally in China’s hands. Well China and Americas anyway. Together they account for almost half of all greenhouse gas emissions. If China wants to avoid destroying itself then it needs to urgently rein in its spiralling emissions. And it has started. Last year’s announcement that Chinese emissions would stabilise by 2030 and that 15% of its energy would be derived from non-fossil fuels by 2020 was historic. Indeed China is already the world’s biggest user of wind, solar, hydro and bio-energy. It’s renewable energy capacity is bigger than the US, Germany, Spain and India combined. It’s wind farm capacity has increased 5 fold in the past 4 years and its manufacturing output of solar panels has grown by a factor of 100 over the last ten years. So the shift has started but to avert disaster it has to move faster still. Emissions really need to peak much sooner alongside massive changes in how life is lived. The Chinese dream of living like Americans is simply not possible for more than a billion people. From a climate change perspective and any number of other ecological limits. That’s not to say life must be harder or more backwards. It can still be very pleasant, just not so wasteful.
China tends to get painted as the bad guy in terms of climate change. Just recently there has been a lot of coverage of the fact that China’s cumulative emissions are about to overtake those of the USA’s. But only if you don’t start counting them until 1990 which although it is the date when the world started to become aware of the dangers posed by climate change is also conveniently right in the middle of the period the US was undergoing a massive process of deindustrialisation and transferring many of its high emission manufacturing to China. If you go back to 1850 then the US is responsible for 30% of all human emissions and Europe 25%, while China has created less than 10%. More than half of all human caused greenhouse gas emissions have been created by Europe and the USA. They have derived most of their huge wealth from burning fossil fuels. It seems clear to me that they should take the lead when it comes cutting emissions but all this China bashing is just a cynical exercise in switching the focus from themselves so they can avoid doing anything. Sure China needs to act to, and it already is. It is clear that no country is doing enough to combat catastrophic climate change. China faces a bleak future if emissions aren’t reined in fast. The Chinese authorities are very good at controlling dissent and maintaining order but even they might struggle to prevent the breakdown of the country if millions were facing starvation and the rising seas rendered millions more homeless and caused the economy to collapse.