China’s Vulnerability to Climate Change
“China is among those countries that are most severely affected by the adverse impacts of
climate change.”— China’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (June 2015)1
China is acutely vulnerable to climate change. China’s Third National Assessment Report
on Climate Change—released in November 2015—found that China faces significant threats
from sea level rise, severe weather events, glacier melt and more as heat-trapping gases
accumulate in the atmosphere. The 900-page report—based on work by more than 500
experts at China’s Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST), the China Meteorological
Administration (CMA), Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), Chinese Academy of Engineering
(CAE) and leading universities—found that the average temperatures in China have increased
0.9°–1.5°C/1.6°–2.7°F in the past century, which is more than the global average.2
China’s vulnerability to sea level rise is especially acute. More than 550 million people live in
China’s coastal provinces—one of the most densely populated regions on Earth. Millions of
people live or work in low-lying areas in major Chinese cities, including Shanghai, Qingdao and
Xiamen. The Third National Assessment Report found that sea levels of eastern China rose 93
millimeters (3.5 inches) between 1980 and 2012. It found that
● sea levels could rise 40–60 centimeters (16–24 inches) above 20th-century averages
by the end of this century, and
● an increase of one centimeter (0.4 inches) could cause the coastline to recede by
more than 10 meters (33 feet) in parts of China.
The Third National Assessment Report found that such rising seas will significantly increase risks of flooding and storm damage along China’s coasts. Another study found that what is now called a “100-year flood event” in Shanghai would become 40 times more likely with one meter (39 inches) of sea level rise.3
China is also vulnerable to droughts, heavy rains and heat waves. The Third National Assessment Report found that climate change would increase all three. The report found that climate change could extend growing seasons for some crops in northern China but warned that climate change would bring less reliable rains, soils that retain less water, the spread of dangerous pests and shorter growing seasons for many crops. It found that changing rainfall patterns would strain reservoirs and create dam safety challenges, including at the Three Gorges Dam.4
Melting glaciers will also create challenges for China. The Third National Assessment Report found that China’s glaciers shrank 10% between the 1970s and early 2000s and are likely to shrink more in the decades ahead. It highlighted potential geopolitical risks from disputes with South Asian neighbors over transboundary water resources and smaller river flows caused by shrinking glaciers.5
A 2018 study found that China is especially vulnerable to river flooding as a result of climate change. The authors note that costs could be felt throughout global supply chains, many of which depend on goods shipped on China’s rivers, and estimate that without adaptation measures economic damage from river flooding in China could increase 80% in the next 20 years.6
1. People’s Republic of China, Enhanced Actions on Climate Change: China’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (June 2015) at p.2, http://www4.unfccc.int/Submissions/INDC/Published%20Documents/China/1/China’s%20INDC%20-%20on%2030%20June%202015.pdf.
2. ScienceNet, 《第三次气候变化国家评估报告》发布 [The Release of China’s Third National Assessment on Climate Change] (November 22, 2015), http://paper.sciencenet.cn/htmlnews/2015/11/332234.shtm; Zhenhe Liu, “Main Points of China’s 3rd National Assessment on Climate Change,” 360doc (January 13, 2016), http://www.360doc.com/content/16/0113/00/27398134_527482646.shtml
3. National Bureau of Statistics, “Tabulation on the 2010 Population Census of The PRC” (2010), http://www.stats.gov.cn/tjsj/pcsj/rkpc/6rp/indexch.htm; Ministry of Science and Technology, 第三次气候变化国家评估报告 [China’s Third National Assessment] (November 23, 2015); Chris Buckley, “The Findings of China’s Climate Change Report,” New York Times (November 30, 2015), https://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/01/world/asia/china-climate-change-globalwarming.html?mcubz=0&_r=0; Chris Buckley, “Chinese Report on Climate Change Depicts Somber Scenarios,” New York Times (November 29, 2015), https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/30/world/asia/chinese-report-on-climatechange-
depicts-somber-scenarios.html?mcubz=0&_r=0; David King, Daniel Schrag, Zhou Dadi, Qi Ye and Arunabha Ghosh, “Climate Change, A Risk Assessment,” Centre for Science and Technology (July 2015) at p.8, http://www.csap.cam.ac.uk/media/uploads/files/1/climate-change--a-risk-assessment-v9-spreads.pdf.
4. Ministry of Science and Technology, 第三次气候变化国家评估报告 [China’s Third National Assessment] (November 23, 2015); Buckley, “Findings of China’s Climate Change Report” (November 30, 2015); Buckley, “Chinese Report on Climate Change” (November 29, 2015).
5. Ministry of Science and Technology, 第三次气候变化国家评估报告 [China’s Third National Assessment] (November 23, 2015); Buckley, “Chinese Report on Climate Change” (November 29, 2015); Liu, “Main Points” (January 13, 2016).
6. Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), “China floods to hit US economy: Climate effects through trade chains,” ScienceDaily (May 28, 2018), https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/05/180528151920.htm.