China’s Vulnerability to Climate Change

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. Tens of 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 off 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.

Several recent studies have reached similar results, suggesting the risk of even greater sea level rise unless global emissions of heat-trapping gases drop sharply in the decades ahead. The Third National Assessment Report found that rising seas will significantly increase risks of flooding and storm damage along China’s coasts.[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, 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]

References

[2] Liu Zhenhe, “Main Conclusions of China’s 3rd National Assessment on Climate Change,” 360doc.com (January 13, 2016); Wang Jing, <第三次气候变化国家评估报告> 发布 [China’s Third National Assessment on Climate Change Released] ScienceNet.cn (November 22, 2015); Bing Wang et al., “Comprehensive analysis on China’s National Climate Change Assessment Reports,” Frontiers of Engineering Management (March 2019). A 2019 study by the China Meteorological Administration found that annual average temperatures in China increased 0.24°C (0.43°F) per decade between 1951 and 2018—also more than the global average. See “China’s surface temperature shows a clear upward trend,” People’s Daily (April 11, 2019).

[3] Liu Zhenhe, “Main Conclusions of China’s 3rd National Assessment on Climate Change,” 360doc.com (January 13, 2016); Ying Qu et al., “Coastal Sea level rise around the China Seas,” Global and Planetary Change (January 2019); Hu Yiwei, “Why Sea Level Rise is a Big Deal for China,” CGTN (June 8, 2019); Chris Buckley, “The Findings of China’s Climate Change Report,” New York Times (November 30, 2015); Chris Buckley, “Chinese Report on Climate Change Depicts Somber Scenarios,” New York Times (November 29, 2015); National Bureau of Statistics, “Tabulation on the 2010 Population Census of The PRC” (2010).

[4] Liu Zhenhe, “Main Conclusions of China’s 3rd National Assessment on Climate Change,” 360doc.com (January 13, 2016); Chris Buckley, “The Findings of China’s Climate Change Report,” New York Times (November 30, 2015); Chris Buckley, “Chinese Report on Climate Change Depicts Somber Scenarios,” New York Times (November 29, 2015)

[5] Liu Zhenhe, “Main Conclusions of China’s 3rd National Assessment on Climate Change,” 360doc.com (January 13, 2016); Chris Buckley, “Chinese Report on Climate Change Depicts Somber Scenarios,” New York Times (November 29, 2015); Greenpeace, “Melting Earth: Glacier Retreat and its Impacts in China’s Cryosphere” (November 20, 2018).

[6] Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), “China floods to hit US economy: Climate effects through trade chains,” ScienceDaily (May 28, 2018).

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