climate change

How China is vulnerable to climate change

China has often been the one word riposte to anyone calling for more robust climate action in Britain. ‘Take your protests to China’ was Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s response to Extinction Rebellion. It’s a familiar theme – all action in Britain is somewhat pointless if the much larger polluters like China aren’t taking the climate crisis seriously.

I’ve argued before that this reasoning is a decade out of date, and the picture on China is much more interesting than that. As Barbara Finamore points out, the grumbling about China’s coal power tends to drown out the fact that China leads the world in electric vehicles, solar power and wind.

There’s a good reason why China is investing heavily in clean technology, and trying to reduce its reliance on coal: it is in its national interests to do so. China could be devastated by climate change.

In his book Climate Change and the Nation State, Anatol Lieven describes in detail how and where China is vulnerable in a changing climate. Here are a few of the main headlines.

Water: China already draws heavily from its big rivers, which it depends on for agriculture. It also relies on meltwater from shrinking glaciers in some regions, and there are stark regional inequalities in water access. With rising consumption from industry, agriculture, and the population at large, water shortages are a serious risk. And of course, water shortages are acute and miserable enough to stoke social unrest very quickly.

Desertification: on a related theme, Northern areas of the country have been subject to creeping desertification for decades. A series of ambitious land restoration efforts have made a difference, but the rising pressure of climate change could erase gains faster than they can accumulate. There are some dramatic proposals for redistributing water around the country, but these too may prove impossible to sustain in a changing climate. Heat, drying and soil loss would continue to erode some of China’s agricultural areas.

Food security: water stress threatens food security, and it is one of several factors that will be exacerbated by climate change. Salt water incursion from rising sea levels, drought, and hotter and dryer growing conditions are all reducing China’s food security. Again, a food crisis could leads to social and political upheaval – drought and food price spikes were one of the driving forces behind the ‘Arab Spring’ wave of revolts. At various points in its history China has seen famines on a scale that is almost impossible to imagine, and the government will do anything to avoid repeating the experience.

Floods: Flooding is a recurring problem in Chinese cities already, leading to some innovative solutions that I have covered before. But rising sea levels mean this problem is going to get worse rather than better. Lieven foresees a possible “giant demographic pincer, whereby tens of millions of people fleeing the drying interior run up against tens of millions of others fleeing the flooded coast.” Again, there are flood incidents in living memory in China that have no parallel in the West, and that sharpens resolve on the issue.

Political unrest: China’s one party state has advantages and disadvantages, and has shown willingness to adapt in the past. The effects of climate change, as described above, may prove to be a substantial test. Regional inequalities can fester. Displaced populations bring challenges of their own. Shortages can reverse development gains. All of these can test the legitimacy of government.

Lieven concludes that China is the second most vulnerable of the major global powers, after India. If it does not act to reduce emissions and play its part in stabilising the climate, it may suffer “to a degree that may bring down the Chinese state in the second half of this century.”

In other words, China isn’t acting on climate change out of some kind of duty to humanity. It has to act to protect itself and to secure the long term viability of the state and its citizens. Climate change is going to write itself into the story of China in the coming decades, and that vulnerability is a real spur to action.


  1. Thanks for the usual good article Jeremy. I suspect you already know that you accidentally wrote ‘Lieven concludes that China is the second most vulnerable of the major global powers, after China.’

  2. ‘China leads the world in … solar power and wind.’

    Not according to The China Energy Portal. It shows that the solar/wind share of China’s electricity generation is only 8.6%. In the UK it’s over 25% – yet no one claims that we ‘lead the world’. Moreover although solar and wind’s contribution to electricity generation grew by 86.8 TWh last year, thermal power (mainly coal) grew by 120 TWh.

    And all those electric vehicles are essentially powered by coal.

    1. On percentage terms, Britain is a world leader on wind power and I hear that regularly. On almost any other metric you care to mention – amount invested, total capacity, turbine manufacturing, etc, China is indisputably a leader too.

      Yes, China uses too much coal, we all know that. There are advantages to EVs even if they charge on coal, such as urban air pollution, though obviously it doesn’t reduce carbon. But Britain only had 7% renewable energy in 2010. Things will change, and this post explains why China will need to act to protect itself.

      1. On almost any other metric you care to mention … China is indisputably a leader too.’

        True – for example, it’s indisputably a leader in the financing of new coal projects around the world and in commissioning huge numbers of new coal plants at home:

        Things will change…

        But will they? Like the above, this indicates otherwise: An extract:

        The nation is on track to cap installed coal power capacity at 1,100 gigawatts by 2020. However, its coal and power industry groups are proposing further expansion to capacity of 1,200 to 1,400 gigawatts by 2035, according to the report. Should that be adopted, China alone would have more than triple the limit on worldwide coal power determined by the Paris climate agreement to keep global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius …

        1. Sure, but we could also look at how much of China’s coal capacity is already sitting idle. Carbon Tracker’s work on this shows that if China (or more specifically its regional authorities) throws more money at coal, it will be a political decision and not an economic one.

          But this isn’t an article praising China for getting everything right. It very obviously isn’t. I’m looking at how it is vulnerable to climate change.

  3. … how much of China’s coal capacity is already sitting idle.

    No doubt some part is idle. China’s priority is to clean up the dreadful urban pollution experienced by so many people – an increasing source of civic unrest. That’s why it’s closing down old coal-fired power plants so as to abate air pollutants such as nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide and particulates. (It’s also why it’s investing so heavily in electric vehicles.) And, to compensate for these now idle plants, it’s building lots of modern, so-called clean coal power plants: And that’s why China’s emissions continue to increase:

    I’m looking at how it is vulnerable to climate change.

    Indeed. But what’s interesting is that the Chinese authorities don’t seem to be concerned about it. Since China signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, they’ve allowed its GHG emissions to grow by over 300% (from 2.7 Gtons on 1992 to 11.3 in 2018**). And it’s a trend that’s continuing – see the Carbon Brief link above. Moreover, as the Guardian article I cited yesterday noted, its investments in coal plants overseas are continuing. These are hardly the actions of a country that’s concerned about dangerous man-made climate change. But they are the actions of a country that sees economic development and global influence as overriding priorities.


    1. China has the third largest coal reserves in the world, and it is trying to walk a fine line between using what it has and investing towards what comes after it. Whether it is striking that balance successfully or not is a matter of opinion, and we’ll only definitively know with hindsight.

      1. … we’ll only definitively know with hindsight.

        True. But, if increased emissions are the problem, things don’t look too good:

        Two things:

        1. Have you read ‘Wilding’ by Isabella Tree? If not, you should. It describes an utterly remarkable and inspiring rewilding venture that, in just a few years, restored a piece of land in Sussex from exhaustion to ecological triumph. It overturned many of my preconceptions. And it’s beautifully written.

        2. I’m sure that, like me, you’re enjoying the almost total absence of any aircraft flying into or out of Luton airport.

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