The road to climate resilience

China and Europe face similar potential impacts from climate change, and have much to gain by collaborating on adaptation policies. Beverley Darkin sets out the case for cooperation.

Recognition of the urgent need to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and build a low-carbon economy is gathering momentum internationally. But there is a new, emerging reality staring us in the face: cutting carbon alone will not solve the climate problem.

The severity of climate change will not be determined solely by our ability to reduce emissions, but by our capacity to respond to the changes to which we are already committed. For this reason, the creation of “climate-resilient communities”, societies able to respond to the effects of global warming, is as important as the establishment of a low-carbon economy. On this, the EU and China are well placed to act as leaders. 

Strengthening our capacity to adapt to climate change is not new. But as the science becomes ever more certain, and the observable impacts start to take hold, governments are taking the issue of adaptation more seriously. For example, parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change agreed the “Nairobi Work Programme on Impacts, Vulnerability and Adaptation to Climate Change” in November 2006 to help countries improve their understanding and assessment of the impacts. This programme of action was welcomed by the G8 in June 2007 in Heiligendamm, where G8 leaders emphasised their commitment to enhancing co-operation with developing countries in the areas of adaptation and climate research. Critically, it is no longer seen as a “failure” in mitigation policy to want to improve our resilience to climate change.

But why are China and Europe, in particular, positioned to act collaboratively on climate adaptation?

First, although China and the EU are geographically different and distant, they will confront many common issues with the onslaught of global warming. Scientific assessments by the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology, Chinese Meteorological Association, Chinese Academy of Sciences and European Environment Agency, suggest that both regions will face similar challenges, including drought, flooding, shifting agricultural zones and productivity, sea-level rise, disturbance to natural ecosystems and biodiversity loss. The severity and geographical spread of these impacts might vary and differences in socio-economics will affect their ability to respond at the local level, but both regions will experience increased vulnerability.

Take water as an example. Predictions by the European Environment Agency show that in the period up to 2030, climate change will reduce river flow in southern Europe and exacerbate already acute water shortages in the more arid regions of the south. Droughts may increase the risk of forest fires of the sort seen across Greece this summer. Meanwhile, higher levels of precipitation will increase river flow in northern Europe. Extreme precipitation, particularly in the winter months will lead to increased flooding and may cause a reduction in water quality due to storm water mixing with sewage water. Both drought and flooding could cause significant financial and human loss throughout the continent.

In China, predictions by the government, the Chinese Meteorological Association and Chinese Academy of Sciences show the physical impacts of climate change will be very similar to those in Europe, even though the geographic distribution will be almost the reverse of Europe’s. It is anticipated that climate change will lead to decreased precipitation and river flow in the arid north, increasing drought-stricken areas. In contrast, the south will experience an increase in run-off into rivers, while floods are predicted to become more severe.

Overall, the frequency of droughts and floods are set to increase in China, with an accompanying deterioration in the gap between the demand the supply of water. The glacial areas of western China have already retreated by 21%, according to China’s first national climate change assessment, published in December 2006. The total water available from glacial meltwater will increase in the short-term, with supplies expected to peak between 2030 and 2050 and then fall. According to the Stern Review, 23% of China’s population – around 250 million people – live “in the western region that depends principally on glacial meltwater.” The impact of increasing water scarcity on these communities could have significant consequences for regional stability.

The second answer to the question of why the EU and China are well placed to co-operate, is that they recognise the urgent need to connect the science of impact assessment to the policy-making process, if they are to improve their adaptive capacity in time. The Chinese government’s national climate-change assessment provides a scientific foundation for the development of national strategies and policies to tackle climate change. Meanwhile, the European Commission published its first green paper on climate change and adaptation in June 2007, setting out the case for action and outlining the policy options available. In both publications, China and the EU have identified the need to improve its alliance with partners around the world in co-ordinating action and strengthening co-operation on climate change adaptation.

While the EU and China might be well-placed to work together on adaptation, in what way might they co-operate? All too often adaptation is categorised as a sub-set of “development assistance”, requiring donor countries to commit resources (mostly in the form of funding) to developing countries. Building climate resilience is different. It requires China and Europe to act as equal partners.

This involves exchanging intellectual and technical tools to allow us to predict future impacts and vulnerabilities with greater precision. It will mean collaborating to develop our understanding of how to integrate scientific and socio-economic findings so that appropriate policy options can be identified at regional and local level. Better technology co-operation and investment between nations will also be needed. This can be achieved by removing tariff and non-tariff barriers on monitoring, evaluation and assessment equipment and adaptation technologies. It can also be pursued through conventional trade and investment co-operation, by expanding opportunities for foreign and direct investment, joint ventures and human mobility.

Building resilience may also involve the establishment of joint standards, to improve the capacity of communities to cope with local environmental change and to avert actions (such as the purchase of air conditioning units in response to rising temperatures) that will contribute to further warming. This could involve, for example, establishing joint standards for building efficiency and product design – particularly heating, ventilation and air conditioning – to improve energy conservation. It will also require improved access to finance and insurance, particularly for those vulnerable communities that are most exposed to the extremes of climate change, yet least able to respond.

China and the EU are confronting a choice: we collaborate and manage the challenges we face together, or we can take separate paths, delay our response, and wait to see what the consequences will be. But the longer we wait, the more likely we will be forced into reactive, unplanned adaptation. This could be both costly and destabilising.

Beverley Darkin was a Senior Research Fellow at Chatham House (Royal Institute of International Affairs) from 2005-7. Prior to that she worked for the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Homepage photo by Madeira