The message is clear: Shanghai under water, Tibetan glaciers disappearing, crop yields in precipitous decline, epidemics flaring. These are just some of the dire consequences that Chinese scientists predict for their country this century if current climate change is not addressed. Yet China’s leaders pay about as much attention to the issue as does George W. Bush. In fact, a report issued last year by the Climate Action Network-Europe ranks China fifty-fourth out of fifty-six countries for its climate change response, just behind the United States and ahead only of Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.
Beijing knows the costs of inaction: A recent major official study on climate change predicts up to a 37 percent decline in China’s wheat, rice and corn yields in the second half of the century. Precipitation may decline by as much as 30 percent in three of China’s seven major river regions: the Huai, Liao and Hai. The Yellow and Yangtze rivers, which support the richest agricultural regions of the country and derive much of their water from Tibetan glaciers, will initially experience floods and then drought as the glaciers melt.
Moreover, a one-meter rise in sea level will submerge an area the size of Portugal along China’s eastern seaboard–home to more than half the country’s population and 60 percent of its economic output. Already climate change-related extreme weather is taking its toll: In 2006 such disasters cost China more than $25 billion in damage. Finally, a study by Shanghai-based researcher Wen Jiahong suggests that the lethal H5N1 virus will spread as climate change shifts the habitats and migratory patterns of birds.
Yet China’s leaders show little inclination to move aggressively to forestall such calamities. As a result of China’s reliance on coal to fuel its economy, its emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide have tripled over the past thirty years and are now second only to those of the United States. In late 2006 the International Energy Agency predicted that China would surpass the United States as the largest contributor of CO2 by 2009, a full decade earlier than anticipated. China already uses more coal than the United States, the European Union and Japan combined and is the world’s second-largest consumer of oil after the United States. (India, which lags well behind China in its overall consumption of coal, is nonetheless on track to become a major CO2 contributor over the next ten years and is already the fifth-largest contributor of greenhouse gases globally.)
China’s development strategy suggests that little will change in the foreseeable future. With plans on the books to urbanize half the Chinese population by 2020, energy consumption will soar. City residents in China use 250 percent more power than their rural counterparts. And China’s love affair with the private car is set to rival that of the United States. A conservative estimate by the Asian Development Bank predicts that the number of cars in China could increase by fifteen times present levels over the next thirty years, more than tripling CO2 emissions.
If China’s development trajectory continues as planned, its increase in greenhouse gas emissions will likely exceed that of all industrialized countries combined over the next twenty-five years, surpassing by five times the reduction in such emissions that the Kyoto Protocol sought. In short, it’s a nightmarishly bad picture.
It would be unfair, however, to characterize China as doing nothing to address climate change. The leadership’s worries about both energy security and domestic air pollution–five of the world’s ten most polluted cities are in China–are propelling them to set bold targets for reshaping their energy mix and enhancing energy efficiency.