Overview of Climate Change in China

Submitted by Sukaina Bharwani | published 25th Mar 2011 | last updated 30th Mar 2011

Note: This report was produced in Sep 2008 as part of a project to provide background information for Sida country assistance strategies, with the University of Gothenburg. Given the pace of policy development and change in China, it might be best read as a snapshot of conditions at that time.

Current Climate and hazards

China spans many distinct climatic zones from South to North, ranging from tropical to sub-arctic. The other major distinction is that of decreasing rainfall from East to West, which can be summarised as follows:

  • South and East China has a monsoon climate bringing heavy summer rains. Rainfall can be up to 1500mm/year on the SE coasts
  • Northwest China has a dry continental climate with annual rainfall totals which can be as low as 50mm/year
  • The Qinghai-Tibet plateau has an average elevation of 4000-5000m, and has a harsh plateau climate with average temperatures mostly less than 0C.

The major hazards in China are flooding (intense rainfall, storm surges, tropical cyclones) and drought, but deaths from heatwaves and extreme cold events are also known.

Trends in current climate

The average temperature over China increased by 0.79C over the period 1905-2001, slightly above the global average, with greatest warming experienced in the North of China and in winter. There has been no clear national trend in precipitation, although at the regional level some trends are apparent, such as drying in the Yellow River basin and North China Plain (Yin et al 2007, NDRC 2007). Effects of increased temperatures since 1950 have included a 21% reduction in glacier extent, a reduction of 5m in the thickness of permafrost on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, a 2-4 day advance in the first budding of plants, severe drought in the North and North-East of China, a 7-fold increase in the number of reported floods and a decrease in sea-ice in the Yellow Sea and Gulf of Bothai. (NDRC 2007, Zeng et al 2008, Lin et al 2007). Climatic hazards, including floods, droughts, tropical cyclones and storm surges, account for 89.1% of economic losses from disasters in China from 1980-2003 (Shi et al 2008).

Projections of climate change

National-level projections of climate change for China using a range of Global Circulation Models and different emissions scenarios show that average national temperatures (compared to the period 1961-90) are likely to increase faster than the global average, by 2.3-3.3C by 2050 and 3.9-6C by 2100 (NDRC 2007) but that there will be significant regional differences, for example warming will be greatest in the North and on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau (IPCC 2007b). Average precipitation over China is expected to increase by 10-12% by 2100, but the changes will again vary from region to region, for example while the Northwest and Northeast are expected to see the largest increases, precipitation in central China may decrease (Yin et al 2006, Yihui et al 2007). There are likely to be more extreme rainfall events and the intensity of tropical cyclones in expected to increase, however, it is difficult to say what changes will occur in the frequency or path of these storms (IPCC 2007a).

Impacts of Climate Change

Economically vital low-lying areas such as the Pearl River delta and North China Plain are vulnerable to sea-level rise, particularly cities such as Tianjin and Shanghai where land subsidence is also occurring. A 30cm rise in sea-level would increase by 5-6 times the flooding area in the Changjiang (Yangtze) and Zhujiang deltas compared to the present and exacerbate the effects of storm surges (IPCC 2007a). Wetland areas and coastal mangroves are also threatened by rising sea-level and increased saltwater intrusion. Glaciers in China store 5590km3 and play a vital role in regulating river run-off and water supply to W. China, however an expected decrease in area of 27% by 2050 may lead to negative impacts on the sustainability of water supply for some 250m people in China (NDRC2007, IPCC 2007a). The extent of permafrost on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau could decrease by 57% with a warming of 3C, which would cause land subsidence and threaten projects such as the Qinghai-Tibet railway (National Communication 2004, Zeng et al 2008). Despite small increases in precipitation in the North of China, studies using infiltration models indicate that there will be reduced run-off in much of the continental interior of China. Demand is expected to increase, placing pressure on water supply in areas such as Tianjin, where water availability per capita is already low. A study of future water supply in Tianjin shows that with current policies, even with the South-North water transfer project, the gap between demand and supply in 2020 would increase to 23%, indicating that water conservation and regulatory measures are needed to reduce this gap (Zhou 2004). This study may be indicative of water supply problems in many other areas of northern China.

Without adaptation the overall effects on Chinese agriculture are likely to be negative, as grain yields could decline by 5-10% by 2030 and cropping systems destabilised. Warming is expected to increase demand for irrigation thus putting more pressure on water resources and wetland areas, and will favour the spread of agricultural pests such as armyworm (National Communication 2004). Positively, the boundaries for double and triple cropping will move North with warmer temperatures, increasing the opportunity for productive agriculture in the North of the country (National Communication 2004). There are likely to be more deaths from heat-related diseases and an increase in the range of diseases such as Malaria and Dengue Fever, but a reduction in cold-related mortality. Droughts and floods (both inland and coastal) are both expected to increase.

Many of China's diverse ecosystems such as the mountain ecosystems of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, the arid grasslands of the North and inland wetlands are expected to be very sensitive to climate change, particularly where they are under pressure from existing stresses such as over-grazing (Yin et al 2006).

Adaptation and Mitigation

Capacity and Policy: Adaptation

Adaptation to climate change is necessary in order to reduce the negative impacts of climate change on China, and to take advantage of any opportunities which may arise. Adaptation options will vary depending on the sector and region of interest; however several themes appear to be important across different areas. One of the most important factors in determining ability to adapt is access to relevant information on climate change, and the dissemination of this information, and ability to use it, needs to be improved to enhance adaptive capacity at all scales. The conservation and restoration of fragile ecosystems, such as mangrove forests and wetland areas by reducing existing stresses such as fertilizer run-off will increase their ability to adapt to climate change and to perform valuable ecosystem services such as flood control and coastal protection (National Communication 2004, IPCC 2007a). Water access and availability will be a major issue in the future and has cross-cutting sectoral implications. Measures to conserve water, both technical such as drip-irrigation, and social such as changing the perception of water as an inexhaustible resource and strengthening regulations on water management and allocation, will be needed if China is to meet its water needs (Guoyu et al 2008, Yin et al 2006). As the driver of economic growth, it is clear that China's productive coastal strip must be protected from sea-level rise and storm damage. Strengthening coastal defences (including natural defences such as mangroves), improving coastal monitoring and early warning systems, and adopting an Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM) approach are all important steps to ensure coastal protection (National Communication 2004). Please see Appendix 1 for China's technology needs for adaptation and Appendix 2 for suggestions of regional priorities for adaptation.

It is the poorest and most marginalised members of society who have the least capacity to adapt to climate change, due to other social and economic stresses such as lack of access to information and resources. Any policy to adapt to climate change must be aware of this, and include measures to reduce existing stresses on the poor, perhaps by providing access to healthcare or microfinance facilities so that they do not remain trapped in poverty, and as a result can enhance their capacity to adapt to climate change (Yin et al 2006). Local level participation in decisions on adaptation measures has been shown to be vital to their success, and often prioritises more locally appropriate options that a top-down approach would not capture. In addition to increasing the likelihood of a successful outcome, local participation also acts to increase community awareness and capacity to deal with the problem (Yin et al 2006, IPCC 2007a). Stronger public participation in these decisions in China would improve the chances of successful action to both adapt to and mitigate climate change.

China has made large steps towards developing its capacity for climate-related research and development, and is continuing to further strengthen this capacity, however better international exchange of information and best practice would enhance this process (NDRC 2007). Public awareness is low and must be improved, in particular in rural areas, but the establishment of several high-profile Leading Groups to tackle climate change, and planned integration of climate change into education on sustainable development should improve this situation (NDRC 2007). The role of NGOs in China is still limited and if participation of environmental NGOs was increased this could support the effort to raise awareness (Richterzhagen and Scholze 2007).

Capacity for climate projections and adaptation is improving but must be strengthened, There is a particular need for an improved climatological monitoring network in the Northwest, more regional studies using RCMs (or other downscaling techniques) developed for China, and sectoral assessments of the impacts and options for adaptation, in particular for the Health and Transport sectors (Lin et al 2007, National Communication 2004). Research into changes and impacts of extreme events, the costs of climate change and adaptation and uncertainties in climate projections would help to guide provincial and national level policy on climate change. Effective implementation of this research will require multi-disciplinary partnerships and lasting cooperation between actors at the local, provincial and national levels (Lin et al 2007).

Capacity and Policy: Mitigation (CDM, Energy policies etc)

Emissions of carbon dioxide reached 1.6Gt in 2006 and China is now widely regarded to have overtaken the US as the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gasses (Zeng et al 2008). With CO2 emissions of 5.1 tonnes/capita, however, China remains significantly below the EU average (8.6 tonnes) and US average (19.4 tonnes), and accounts for only 7% of accumulated historical emissions pre-2002 compared to 29% for the US and 26% for the EU (The Climate Group 2008). However, 5.1 tonnes/capita is still slightly above the world average of 5 tonnes/capita (The Climate Group 2008), and if a per capita target similar to the 2 tonnes proposed by Sir Nicholas Stern was adopted, China would have to significantly reduce its emissions (Stern 2008). Analysis also shows that 23% of China's emissions come from the manufacture of goods for export, which has raised debate over whether these emissions should be attributed to China or to the country of final consumption (Zeng et al 2008). In addition China's energy intensity (kgCO2/$GDP), has fallen by 60% between 1980 and 2006, and there is a national target for a further reduction of 20% by 2010 (NDRC 2007). The latest IEA statistics (from 2005) show that China must continue to reduce its energy intensity from 2.68kgCO2 /$ to reach the world average of 0.75kg CO2 /$ (IEA 2008). What is clear is that with primary energy needs set to double by 2030, and increases in emissions by 2015 expected to far outweigh reductions from the Kyoto Protocol, China is a vital part of any future agreement on emissions reductions (Aufhammer and Carson 2007, IEA 2007). China's focal point for international climate negotiations is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), and its position is one of supporting common but differentiated responsibilities and addressing climate change in the context of sustainable development (NDRC 2007).

The National Coordination Committee on Climate Change (NCCCC), coordinated by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), was set up in 2003 to combat climate change and involves 17 government agencies and ministries.The most significant actors in the NCCCC are the NDRC and the MOFA. The State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) is in charge of environmental protection but only plays a marginal role in the NCCCC. In 2007 China published its National Climate Change Programme, the first climate change strategy from a developing country, bringing together many existing policies which contribute to mitigation activities A National Leading Group to Address Climate Change, Energy Conservation and Pollutant Discharge Reduction was set up in 2007 with Premier Wen Jiabao as director, and there is also a National Expert Advisory Committee on Climate Change, and Leading Group of Combating Climate Change (led by MOFA). NDRC is in charge of the institutional coordination of these groups and is well placed to integrate climate concerns into economic planning, but only if it looks beyond its economic focus (Richterzhagen and Scholze 2007).

There are many laws relating to energy conservation and the promotion of renewable energy, such as the Law on Energy Conservation of the People's Republic of China and the Law on Renewable Energy of the People's Republic of China, and there are ambitious targets to decrease energy intensity by 20% in 2010 compared to 2005 and to increase the use of renewables from 8% in 2006 to 15% in 2020 (The Climate Group 2008). For comparison, the EU, regarded as a world leader in emissions targets, has set a target of 20% renewables by 2020. China is already the world's leading manufacturer of renewable technology and boasts a rapidly growing clean technology sector. In 2007 China accounted for 73% of the total number of projects funded through the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) , with investment totalling $5.4bn, however there is some evidence that these projects do little to reduce China's carbon emissions, which is an issue requiring further scrutiny as the CDM is one of the main mechanisms through which the UNFCCC aims to reduce emissions (Zeng et al 2008, The Economist 2008). China is aware of the need to avoid 'locking-in' inefficient technologies into its development pathway, such as inefficient power stations, but this will require a concerted effort to make clean technology available and ensure that it is taken up (NDRC 2007).

Whilst many good laws, policies and targets have been developed aimed at reducing emissions the monitoring and regulation processes to ensure that these targets are met are poor at present, which decreases their effectiveness, for example it appears that the ambitious target to reduce energy intensity by 20% by 2010 will not be met (Richterzhagen and Scholze 2007). Implementation of national policies at provincial level is poor due to a lack of incentives, lack of resources and conflict with other local priorities. For example wealthier provinces are investing in energy efficient power generation; however neither the incentives nor resources are available in poorer provinces, with the result that inefficient technology continues to be used (Richterzhagen and Scholze 2007, Aufhammer and Carson 2007).

Example CDM projects

China has the most CDM projects of any country in the worls, so the type of projects are very varied and include the development of renewables (for example wind farms, hydropower and biomass), improvements in energy saving and efficiency, methane recovery and utilization and afflorestation projects. The official CDM website of China has full details of all the CDM projects currently approved in China.

The following are links to detailed project descriptions and documents from the UNFCCC:

Useful Supporting documents (e.g. NAPAs, Capacity assessments, sectoral assessments)

References

Aufhammer, M. and Carson R.T. 2007 Forecasting the path of China's CO2 emissions using province level information. CUDARE working paper 921

Guoyu, R. et al 2008 Climate Change and its potential impacts on water availability in three basins in N. China.

IEA 2007 World Energy Outlook 2007: China and India Insights. Paris: IEA

IEA 2008 Statistics: Selected Indicators for China and the World. Accessed 28/08/08.

IPCC 2007a Cruz, R.V. et al Asia. Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, M.L. Parry, O.F. Canziani, J.P. Palutikof, P.J. van der Linden and C.E. Hanson, Eds., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 469-506.

IPCC 2007b Christensen, J.H. et al: Regional Climate Projections. In: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M. Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.

Lin, E. et al 2007 China's national assessment report on climate change (II): Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation. Advances in Climate Change Research 3 (supp): 6-11

National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), People's Republic of China 2007 China's National Climate Change Programme. Beijing

People's Republic of China 2004 Initial National Communication on Climate Change. Beijing

Richerzhagen, C. and Scholze, I. 2007 China's capacities for mitigating climate change. DIE Discussion paper

Shi, P.J. et al 2008 Trends and pro-active risk management of climate related disasters. In Fu, C., Freney, J.R. and Stewart, J.W.B. (eds.) Changes in the Human-Monsoon system of East Asia in the Context of Global Change. World Scientific Publishing.

Stern, N. Key Elements of a Global Deal on Climate Change (London School of Economics, April 2008)

The Climate Group 2008 China's clean revolution. London

The Economist 2008 Briefing: China, India and Climate Change: Melting Asia.

World Energy Council 2008 Energy Efficiency policies around the world: Review and evaluation

Yihui, D. et al (2007) China's national assessment report on climate change (I): Climate Change in China and Furture trends. Advances in Climate Change Research 3 (supp): 1-5

Yin, Y. et al 2006 Vulnerability and Climate Change in Western China. A final report submitted to the AIACC project.

Zeng, N. et al 2008 Climate Change - The Chinese Challenge. Science 319: 730-731