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I’ve argued before that this reasoning is a decade out of date, and the picture on China is much more interesting than that.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.