China Dialogue | March 31, 2014
The latest installment from Working Group II of the IPCC finds that the impacts of climate change are “widespread and consequential” and occurring “on all continents and across the oceans”. This is a significant development since the last IPCC report from seven years ago found the impacts of climate change to be “emerging”. Unfortunately, the latest report confirms that climate change isn’t just a problem for future generations, but one that affects every one of us today.
China, in particular, is likely to face issues like increased vulnerability to agriculture and food security from reduced maize yields. Drought and related water impacts will take a significant economic toll on people and business. And major cities, such as Guangzhou, Shanghai and Tianjin, will be highly exposed to coastal flooding that could come from a 0.5-metre rise in global sea level.
The report makes it clear that we still have an opportunity to choose our future. It states that losses increase with greater warming, reinforcing the urgency to implement adaptation measures in parallel with mitigation strategies that reduce global emissions immediately and rapidly.
China’s leaders have acknowledged the growing risks of climate change and are taking action to shift the trajectory of their emissions. This includes setting carbon-intensity targets, making major investments in clean energy, launching pilot emissions-trading programmes and limiting coal production around several major cities.
One key takeaway from the report is that people are the main cause of climate change and the decisions we make today will largely determine whether or not we can avoid even worse climate impacts ahead. The good news is that we also still have the opportunity to be the solution.
The report again confirmed that climate change is having an increased impact. The biggest debate now is one of attribution – it is still uncertain if many phenomena can be blamed entirely on climate change. But the overall trend is worsening and must be taken seriously.
There is plenty of research showing that the impacts of climate change are somewhat worse in China: for example the extreme weather and natural disasters seen in the south-west and north-west. During the assessment process, Chinese experts made the following findings: Climate change is having multiple effects on Chinese agriculture; the impact on forestry is mixed, in that forest area is expanding and moving north, but disasters and pests may become more frequent; melting glaciers will mean more water in the short term for China’s two major river basins, but in the long term there will be an overall negative outcome for water supply in the north-west.
The message from the report is that China must strengthen its adaptation efforts, which in the past have been weak. Earlier China had produced a national strategy for adapting to climate change, but there are still many practical issues to be resolved. Coordination across multiple sectors and fields is required, but China’s existing systems and departmental divisions do not facilitate this. Recent proposals on reforming the system of large and powerful ministries will hopefully help the process.
The report poses challenges for China’s new urbanisation drive. The Chinese government aims to increase its urban residents by 100 million people by 2020 (and by 400-500 million people by 2030). Urbanisation is a key driver for economic growth. But cities have fixed assets and rely upon global public goods (water, food) and energy to survive. Cities do not decide their exposure to climate risk – this is the task of national governments. Thus cities have no choice but to transform themselves.
In the face of growing exposure to climate risk, smart planning and execution, including resource-smart construction, are crucial to the urbanisation process across China. The business-as-usual, cheap and speculative way of expanding urban areas will result in both high carbon lock-in and increase the risks of exposure to climate change that threatens the very foundations of prosperous cities.
Like every nation, the hope for a harmonious and prosperous society in China depends on ambitious multilateral efforts. Agreeing a strong and ambitious agreement that sends a clear signal to all whose capital allocation choices will decide our decarbonisation trajectory is vital. The alternative would be catastrophic – a drip feed of insufficient efforts that fail to initiate the changes we need to mitigate climate change impacts and secure a better future for prosperity.
China is particularly vulnerable to climate change. Yet the country has also been contributing significantly to global CO2 emissions during the recent industrialisation process. China’s coal consumption has become the single most significant determinant for the world’s future climate. Between 2002 and 2012, CO2 emissions from coal burning in China increased by 4.5 billion tonnes, contributing over half of global CO2 emission growth in the same period.
The pathway can’t be more obvious. China needs to phase down its coal consumption. It is no doubt a challenging task, yet it is an imperative that China carry it out, for its citizens choking from air pollution as well as the global vulnerable communities that are suffering water shortages, sea-level rise and extreme weather events associated with climate change.
Mostly with a grim and negative tone, the analyses of the IPCC report on freshwater list the threats that climate change is likely to have on the lives of billions of people: freshwater-related risks are very likely to increase with greenhouse-gas emissions; renewable surface water and groundwater resources are likely to shrink in most dry subtropical regions and at high latitudes; and global flood and drought risks are expected to grow.
What do these grim scenarios mean in terms of water-resources policymaking? Unfortunately, not much as the potential impacts of climate change and the likely hydrologic, economic, social and environmental consequences are so complex that any predictions are surrounded by a great deal of uncertainty at present. We need better knowledge and more accurate models. Even more challenging will be the politics of climate change and water management, which have received scant attention in this report.
For many developing countries, the most important implication of this new IPCC report is that the continued dominant focus of the international community on mitigation is very problematic. By ignoring or downplaying adaptation, they are holding down the economic growth of developing countries and reinforcing historical patterns of domination and injustice.
Some of the biggest challenges that stand in the way of developing effective international cooperation relate to equity and justice. There is still huge asymmetry in contribution; in climate impact, and in the decision making powers across regions. For example in 2010, median per capita emissions for the group of low-income countries were around nine times lower than those of high income countries. Developing countries are unhappy that the language of many key climate documents, whether from the IPCC or the UNFCCC, are increasingly stressing current future responsibilities while de-emphasizing historical responsibility. Similarly, there is a wholesale shift in emphasis of the emerging UNFCCC regime towards voluntary national actions rather than a top down target based agreement with clear implementation plans.
India is a country where vast regions are already reeling under severe water stress, perennial drought-like conditions and increasing incidents of floods and cloud bursts, where close to 22% of the population lives below the poverty line, and where agriculture is the main occupation. The findings of this report clearly indicate that this already vulnerable country could become even more vulnerable if climate change is not addressed.
With elections round the corner in India and a new government likely to be in place by May, it is hoped that the findings in this report become a key basis of any new policy framework or programme envisaged to address the issue of development and poverty alleviation.
The new IPCC report highlights the threats climate change poses to people’s peace and prosperity. It shows that countries, communities and companies must act fast to adapt to the changing climate, but it shows too that there are limits to adaptation and this drives home the urgency of global action to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Now is the time for unprecedented global solidarity and cooperation. Now is the opportunity for true leaders to shine.
Some of the world’s least developed countries are already forging ahead. Ethiopia has committed to carbon-neutral development. Bangladesh has invested US$10 billion of its own money to adapt to extreme climatic events. Nepal is the first country to develop adaptation plans at the community level. It is time for the richer countries to pull their weight and do the right thing, by investing at home and abroad in actions that can reduce emissions and protect people and property from danger. The climate reminds us that we are all in this together and that we can only solve this problem as a united international community.
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