China faces a unique challenge in adapting to climate change

Protecting vulnerable communities through adaptation is now the main priority of China’s climate policies, says Chinese expert Xu Yinlong

Xu Yinlong is a member of the Scientific Steering Committee leading the United Nations Environment Programme’s Programme of Research on Climate Change Vulnerability, Impacts and Adaptation. He was also a contributor to China’s first National Climate Change Strategy published in 2013.

chinadialogue (CD): How well is adaptation understood?

Xu Yinlong (Xu): For a long time the world has been focused on mitigation – reducing climate change by cutting emissions of greenhouse gases – at the expense of adaptation, namely taking action to reduce the harm climate change will do and making full use of the benefits it might bring. Right at the start in 1992, the signing of the UNFCCC [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change] put the emphasis on mitigation. But the climate conference in Copenhagen marked an important change. At the time, everyone hoped to see a genuine, legally binding agreement that would substantially cut emissions. But the developed nations prevented that from happening. Since then, the focus has shifted to adaptation.

In China, there’s no clear understanding of what adaptation to climate change is, so anything gets classed as adaptation. Take agriculture for instance. Disaster resilience, breeding programmes or using different breeds, dealing with erosion, and so on – it all gets called adaptation. If we just class everything we do as adaptation, it means we aren’t actually doing any targeted work on it.

CD: Is the urgency of China’s adaptation policies increasing?

Xu: The droughts in the south-west are a typical example. The 2009-10 drought was described as “once-in-a-century” and now it’s happening every year. Flooding of farmland and cities, summer heatwaves and droughts in the south, these are all getting worse. These are new types of climate disaster arising under climate change conditions.

CD: What is unique about how China is adapting to climate change?

Xu: First, China has a varied climate, which makes adaptation more complex. The country has a range of climate types, topologies and ecosystems.

Second, China’s sparse natural resources mean its ability to adapt is weak. With a population of 1.3 billion, per-head resources are inadequate. This means little room to cope with climate fluctuations. For example on the northern plains huge numbers of farmers are trying to feed their families from very small plots of land. They need to maintain harvests whether it gets hotter, or colder, or drier – but that costs more. China just doesn’t have the resources, and therefore is weak overall.

Meanwhile economic development is not evenly distributed across the country. Many places are very vulnerable and need special attention. And China is so vast that what benefits one region may harm another, so there’s a need for coordination.

Finally, China’s economy is both growing and transforming. Our systems for preventing and dealing with disaster are incomplete, and our planning is not entirely rational. This means that China is again more vulnerable to climate change. Our cities are spreading out further and further, exposing more people and property to the risks of climate change. Urban populations might not be economically vulnerable, but they are ecologically vulnerable, at risk from flooding or smog. One characteristic of China currently, and one of its difficulties, is that larger urban and marginalised populations are being exposed to climate change risk.

CD: How do you think these matters should be addressed in China’s climate-change strategy?

Xu: It’s hard to fully understand adaptation. It is more complex and requires more scientific knowledge than mitigation, plus it affects various sectors of the economy. One change could affect everything else, that’s why you need coordination.

With mitigation, one region can act without affecting anyone else. You just cut greenhouse-gas emissions until you hit your target. Adaptation is different, you can easily impact on other regions or sectors. For example, the north of China is getting warmer, opening up larger areas to farming. That’s adapting to climate change. But it also means using more water on the upper reaches of the Yellow River. That might use up water which, in more developed areas downstream, might have allowed for tenfold or a hundredfold as much output. It wasn’t coordinated: upstream benefited, while interests elsewhere suffered.

So adaptation is interlinked. That means adaptation requires planning at the national level, and then coordinated action.

CD: What should the focus of China’s adaptation be?

Xu: The guiding principles for the adaptation strategy include this: “Plan comprehensively to strengthen adaptation for fields, regions and populations that are weak and vulnerable to climate change.” That looks simpler than it is. China has been researching adaptation to climate change for over 20 years, and one important outcome of that has been the idea of “marginal adaptation” – that is, climate change affects all organisms and ecosystems on the planet, but it is the margins that are most vulnerable. That was the basis for our selection of key issues, priorities and measures, which gave us definite goals for our adaptation efforts.

Weak and vulnerable regions will be given special attention, such as the north-west, where the ecology is very vulnerable and would struggle to recover from any damage. There are also weak and vulnerable populations. China has 128 million poor people, who are responsible for very few greenhouse-gas emissions, yet suffer most from climate change. Swathes of the country are home to very poor populations reliant on a single source of income. A climate disaster – particularly drought – can ruin harvests.

The cities are where natural ecosystems and human society meet. If the climate changes, that affects the economy and society, and how these interact with the ecosystem. Our idea of “marginal adaptation” makes cities a priority for adaptation. In the strategy document, we place infrastructure above agriculture – in the past, agriculture was always in first place. This reflects a huge leap in our understanding. Although agriculture is greatly affected by climate change and directly exposed to its threats, it has more room to adapt. But in cities, both populations and property are highly concentrated and the task here is more urgent.

See also: our special report on urbanisation in China