Tackling climate change: is China laggard or pioneer?

Beijing remains reticent to publicly debate climate change which is consistently downplayed as a cause of recent disasters

China Climate
Typhoon Doksuri brought the heaviest rain in 140 years to Beijing, killing at least 33 people and displacing 1.5 million more
(Image credit: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

The Hai River basin is “the largest natural drainage system in northern China”, said Channel News Asia (Singapore). It has five rivers flowing into it and it contains the capital, Beijing, as well as the major port city of Tianjin.

But that’s not a great combination, since the area is highly prone to flooding and the consequences can be dire. In 1963, the titanic rainstorms that fell on the basin killed more than 5,000 people and dislodged millions more. Yet this hasn’t deterred people from building there. A prolonged “construction boom”, most of it in low-lying areas near lakes and rivers, has meant the Hai basin is “now home to 25 large and medium-sized cities”.

Naturally, the authorities have tried to protect the area with flood defences, said James Palmer in Foreign Policy (Washington), but this was never more than a gesture, as was brought into sharp relief this month, when a powerful tropical storm, Typhoon Doksuri, made landfall in China. It brought the heaviest rain in 140 years to Beijing, killing at least 33 people and displacing 1.5 million more. The storm was so severe, officials decided to open floodgates to stop rivers bursting their banks and to protect Beijing, sacrificing thousands of homes and provoking widespread fury in the process.

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Exceptionally vulnerable to climate change

Typhoon Doksuri, which has washed away bridges and trapped passengers on trains, is just the latest “frightening” weather event to hit China, said The Economist. In July, China’s highest-ever temperature (52.2C) was recorded in the western province of Xinjiang. In January, its lowest-ever reading (-53C) was recorded near the border with Russia. And Beijing warns of further disasters, including floods, heatwaves and wildfires to come. That such events are becoming normalised should alarm China’s leaders, whose country is “exceptionally vulnerable” to climate change. “China must sustain almost a fifth of humanity with just 7% of the world’s fresh water. Its wealthiest industrial regions are clustered along its coasts, making rising sea levels an existential menace.” And its agricultural heartlands are severely prone to flooding. Yet Beijing “seems allergic” to public debate on climate change, which in state media is consistently downplayed as a cause of recent disasters.

It’s hardly surprising when you consider China’s appalling environmental credentials, said Vijay Jayaraj in The Hill (Washington). The world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, it pumps out “nearly twice as much as the second-largest emitter, the US”. And it seems to be doubling down on fossil fuels: in the first six months of this year, it approved at least 50.4 gigawatts of new coal power – more than the entire coal-power capacity of Germany. To make matters worse, it’s also investing heavily in coal-fired power plants abroad, notably in Africa, as part of its “Belt and Road Initiative”, and continues to obstruct progress at global climate summits. As long as that continues, efforts by other countries to reduce their own emissions won’t make a dent in the fight against climate change.

No country is rolling out renewables faster

It’s easy to paint China as a climate villain, said Christoph von Eichhorn in Süddeutsche Zeitung (Munich), but the reality is more complex. On a per capita basis, China’s emissions are far lower than those of the US. In fact, no other country is “rolling out renewables” as fast as China, said Hannah Ritchie in The Washington Post. This year alone, it could add more solar power than the cumulative total now in place in the United States. “Last year, the increase in China’s solar and wind power nearly matched the amount of electricity used in many of the world’s major economies, including South Africa, Australia and Spain.” China is also the world’s biggest manufacturer of wind turbines, solar panels and electric-vehicle batteries; and in 2022 “every third car sold in China was electric”.

The elephant in the room is of course coal; but it’s viewed by Beijing as a stopgap, destined “to stand in when solar and wind production are low”. Sure, much of this is driven by self-interest: the desire for energy independence, and the chance to be a global leader in the field. “But in climate terms, it doesn’t matter why countries reduce their carbon emissions, only that they do.”

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