Flooding events used to affect millions of people in China, but because of the government’s investments in flood control, fewer people are dying despite the increasing severity of recent floods.
Flood adaptation measures include the construction of large dams and reservations and improving early warning systems and emergency response. But an adaptation measure that harnessed nature’s ability to retain water is the implementation of sponge cities.
So far, China’s sponge cities may be China’s most popular and creative climate adaptation strategy.
To cope with its worsening urban floods, China’s prominent architect Kongjian Yu dean of Peking University’s College of Architecture, pioneered the research and implementation of sponge cities in China.
Sponge cities are designed so that rainwater is kept and absorbed where it falls through a sustainable urban drainage system. Read our previous blog post about China’s sponge cities.
Vox’s article reports that the recent devasting extreme events in China mean the country has to ramp up its climate adaptation strategies.
How bad is the heat wave in China this year? The article notes that China, the world’s largest emitter, has been hit by record-breaking heat, drought, and wildfires, drying up its largest rivers and freshwater lakes.
It has affected more than 900 million, or 60% of its population. More than 240 cities in at least 17 provinces had temperatures above 104 degrees Fahrenheit or above 40°C. Typically, China only goes as high as 92°F (33.33°C).
In September 2020, during the UN General Assembly in New York, President Xi Jinping surprised everyone with his announcement via a video link that his country, responsible for more than a quarter of the planet’s emissions at 28%, promised to peak its emissions before 2030, and become carbon neutral by 2060.
The article states that China invests heavily in renewable and clean energy at home and plans to stop financing coal-fired plants abroad.
“China invested $380 billion in renewable energy in 2021 alone, accounting for almost half of new renewable energy capacity worldwide. Because of entrepreneurship and large government subsidies, the country has built an enormous domestic network of wind and solar plants and become the global leader in electric vehicles.”
China’s enormous economic growth to become the second largest economy in the world is fuelled by coal. Still, its prosperity comes with huge environmental costs – its suffered significant air and water pollution, desertification, ecological devastation and increasing extreme weather events.
Triggered by mounting concerns and political pressures, it forced the government to act by passing domestic climate legislation. It went on to become one of the signatories of the 2015 Paris Agreement.
The article says that China’s complex geography and large landmass spanning various climate zones make it vulnerable to extreme weather events like droughts and floods.
“The first factor is that many major cities, like Shanghai or Tianjin, are located in low-lying coastal or river valley areas vulnerable to flooding. Second, glacier melt from China’s portion of the Tibetan plateau is increasing floods downstream. And finally, China’s highly urbanised landscape, and the concentration of population and infrastructure that comes with that, makes China more vulnerable to disasters like floods.”
While acknowledging some progress from China’s climate mitigation, the article notes that its climate adaptation may not be enough to meet current challenges because of the speed at which climate change consequences are occurring, which is faster than what governments, policymakers, and even scientists have expected.
The article also pointed to two significant infrastructure investments of the country – Sichuan’s hydropower and its priciest infrastructure so far, the South-North Water Transfer Project, which promises to supply water-scarce and highly populated areas, including its capital city Beijing.
The article notes that although these two projects are touted to solve the country’s energy and water issues – the first one to supply renewable and clean energy and the latter to provide water which is sourcing from China’s water-rich southern region, they have faced some disruptions, with the latter coming with enormous environmental and social consequences.
Sichuan’s hydropower accounts for 80% of its power production, and because it has a lot of excess energy supply, it shares them with the rest of the country. But recent droughts have lowered the water levels, affected the hydropower supply, and resulted in rolling blackouts.
The South-North Water Transfer, the article says, only served as a Band-aid solution to the north’s water scarcity problems. Increased water damning to support this project has worsened water pollution and exacerbated the country’s water scarcity problem. Experts argue that the massive resources into the project should have gone to more sustainable and less flashy solutions like rainwater collection, water recycling and water conservation.
Water projects are just one of China’s many infrastructure problems. It may also have to rethink how it builds and design its urban areas. For instance, China’s tendency for urban sprawl generates more pollution and emission, and some research suggests it is also more prone to the urban heat island (UHI) effect.
Suggestions to improve China’s urban design includes:
- A more unified power system can better respond to energy shocks, such as a spike in demand for air conditioning when it is hot.
- More efficient air conditioning, better insulation, planning, and cooling centres can help Chinese cities cope better with a heat wave.
- Improve monitoring systems for extreme weather, support the agriculture sector, re-evaluate current infrastructure projects, and bolster reforestation and flood control efforts to control flooding and prepare for future drought scenarios.
China’s updated National Climate Adaptation Strategy recognises the gravity of the climate impacts today and into the future (China updates, 2022).
The new strategy emphasises “proactive adaptation,” focusing on strengthening its monitoring and assessment of climate risks and protecting its food security and “climate-sensitive sectors” like agriculture, supply chains, financial sectors, and energy supply.
The article says that implementing this policy which China is keen to do, will mean that it will change its approach from a highly engineering solution to one that doubles down on nature-based solutions.
Akhtar, M. (2022 September 29). Climate change has come for the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter. Vox. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2022/9/29/23375616/china-climate-adaptation-heat-wave-future
McGrath, M. (2020, September 22). Climate change: China aims for ‘carbon neutrality by 2060’. BBC. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-54256826
China updates its national strategy for climate adaptation. (2022 June 16). China Dialogue. Retrieved from https://chinadialogue.net/en/digest/china-updates-its-national-strategy-for-climate-adaptation/
China has built the world’s largest water-diversion project (2018, April 5). The Economist. Retrieved from https://www.economist.com/china/2018/04/05/china-has-built-the-worlds-largest-water-diversion-project