Every spring, fierce winds, sweeping across the arid landscape of Inner Mongolia, blow walls of sand hundreds of kilometres eastwards, periodically enveloping Beijing and turning day to night. The authorities have planted thousands of hedges in the path of these dry whirlwinds, but the long green line is powerless against the force of the wind and the advance of the dunes. Sandstorms could well disrupt the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
The rise in temperatures is more pronounced in the great loess plains of the north than in the south of the country. According to predictions for the 21st century drawn up by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, rainfall will continue to increase in the south and decline in the north, where drought, which is already reducing yields, will directly threaten agriculture and undermine economic development. Chinaâ€™s glaciers retreated by 21% during the 20th century. A doubling in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would affect the distribution of major crops. Chinaâ€™s food-producing potential will be reduced by 10% as a result of climate change and extreme climatic events (1).
A national assessment of climate change indicates that â€œthere is an increasing trend of sea level rise along Chinaâ€™s coast since the 1950s and this trend has become significantly more obvious in the past few years. The sea level currently has a rate of rise of 1.4-2.6mm per yearâ€ (2). Chinese scientists predict a rise of 31-65cm in sea levels along Chinaâ€™s coasts between now and 2100, increasing erosion and the contamination of ground water by salt, and threatening the megalopolis of Shanghai.
As temperatures rise in the western mountains, the sources of Chinaâ€™s great rivers, the Huang He (Yellow River) and the Yangtze, are drying up at an alarming rate. The inhabitants of the Qumolai district, near the sources of the Yangtze, anticipate to have to buy water to survive. Since 2000, 128 out of 136 wells there have run dry, leaving 80% of the population dependent on water tankers. In this region, 18 rivers that once fed the Yangtze are now identifiable only by their dried-up beds. The drying up of the Huang He is more extreme. A recent study reports that of 4,077 lakes in the Maduo district, through which the river initially flows, 3,000 have disappeared:
as a result 600 homes, 3,000 people and 119,000 cattle are without immediate access to water (3).
The region where the Huang He and the Yangtze rise, the Qinghai province of Tibet, in western China, is called Sanjiangyuan, the source of three rivers.
The third river is the Mekong, which irrigates southeast Asia. Almost a quarter of the water in the Yangtze and half that in the Huang He comes from this region, also known as Chinaâ€™s water-tower.
Scientists attribute the recent unprecedented rise of temperatures in the Sanjiangyuan region to global climate change. According to Greenpeace (4), the average temperature in this area has increased by 0.88C over the last 50 years, causing the glaciers to retreat, melting the permafrost (5), affecting rain regimes and increasing evaporation rates. Human activity has accelerated the degradation of this increasingly fragile environment. The population of the region more than quadrupled from 130,000 in 1949 to 610,000 in 2003. Overgrazing, the inevitable consequence of the need to feed so many, is damaging grasslands and reducing the ecosystemâ€™s capacity to retain water. Mining and the intensive cultivation of the herbs used in Chinese medicine are aggravating the situation.
In 2000, in an attempt to prevent the water-tower from drying up, the government established the Sanjiangyuan nature reserve, with an area of 363,000sq km, one of the largest on the planet. It stands on the roof of the world, in the centre of Qinghai-Tibet, at an average altitude of 4,000 metres. Between 2004 and 2010 national and local authorities committed $930m to the reserveâ€™s construction. They have reforested 84,709 hectares, turned 2.73m hectares of pasture back to grass and attempted to reduce erosion by excluding herds from an area of 1.39m hectares.
Wanted: a global policy
But all this is just a drop in that rising ocean unless the rise in temperatures across the region can be countered by a global policy to combat climate change. According to Anja KÃ¶hne, project manager at the World Wildlife Fundâ€™s European policy office, â€œthe Chinese government realises that climate change is a serious problem threatening food supplies and national stability. China has 200 million poor whose living conditions could be made even worse by rising temperatures. This is a potential cause of political destabilisation.â€
This awareness has concentrated the minds of the authorities and led to the emergence of ecological movements. â€œThere are more and more environmental NGOs,â€ said Yu Jie, Greenpeaceâ€™s representative in Beijing, â€œa hundred now.
The government tolerates them, indeed it sees them as a sort of social safety valve since China is a society in transition. Five years ago Greenpeace didnâ€™t even exist here.â€ But tolerance has its limits. Last December, in the village of Dongzhou in Guangdong province, riot police killed 20 small farmers protesting against the confiscation of their land to build a wind farm.
Necessity is forcing attitudes to change. In February 2005 China passed a law requiring 10% of electricity generation to be from renewable sources by 2020 (6). There is a plan to install 100,000 solar panels across the country. The government has developed energy efficiency standards for motor vehicles, although, according to KÃ¶hne, â€œitâ€™s all back-to-front: European manufacturers are lobbying for China to lower its environmental standardsâ€.
In 2004 the Chinese government announced the introduction of a new indicator of economic production: unlike traditional gross domestic product, â€œgreen GDPâ€ will incorporate the environmental impact of economic development by including the costs resulting from pollution and the destruction of natural resources. According to a study by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, if this indicator had been employed earlier it would have shown a slowing of GDP growth from an average of 8.7% for 1985 to 6.5% for 2000. The study shows that China is now consuming three times the global average of minerals and energy resources per unit of production (7).
Thanks to high energy consumption, Chinese greenhouse gas emissions are increasing at the highest rate of any country, rising by 16% during the year
2002-03 to reach 512m tonnes of CO2, compared with a US total of 64m tonnes (8). Although China has become the worldâ€™s second largest greenhouse gas producer behind the US, it does not accept that it must make reductions.
Emissions per head of population are relatively low at only one-seventh of the US figure. Like other developing countries at climate talks as the Group of 77, China is using this statistic to call for the application of â€œcommon but differentiated responsibilitiesâ€ as the keystone to the fair management of the climate problem. Although acknowledging the â€œdifferentiated responsibilitiesâ€ of states and allowing developing countries to continue to increase greenhouse gas emissions in pursuit of their own development, the Kyoto Protocol accords the industrialised countries the status of â€œgrandfathersâ€ (9) when it comes to responsibility for global warming.
China is trying to guarantee secure energy supplies without worsening the climate warming whose effects it is already experiencing. Hence the governmentâ€™s interest in the Kyoto Protocol and its clean development mechanism (CDM) which encourages industrialised countries to invest in â€œdepollutionâ€ in developing countries in exchange for greenhouse gas emission quotas that can be traded on the future international carbon market. China is currently the main target of CDM projects. It was one of the first countries to establish a designated national authority, a selection committee charged with attracting foreign investment in projects relating to the energy sector. Of eight CDM projects approved by the Chinese government, three concern the recovery of methane from coal mines, three are wind farms and two hydroelectric dams (10). A further 100 projects await approval.
According to the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, a thinktank of researchers from seven Asian countries (11), investors need reassurance about the long-term value of carbon credits that they will obtain by investing in clean development projects. Although the market is still young, it should benefit from the extension of the Kyoto mechanisms agreed at Decemberâ€™s Montreal climate change conference. But the market can only eliminate Chinaâ€™s carbon emissions in conjunction with agreed rules and effective international sectoral programmes supported by international financial institutions. According to consultant Pierre Radanne: â€œA commitment by developing countries is particularly urgent because they have yet to build the major part of their heavy infrastructure. The decisions they make regarding electricity production and construction will commit them for the next 50 years.â€
China is at the forefront of calls for more extensive transfers of technology. But for the common good of humanity this necessitates the waiving of intellectual property rights over climate-friendly technologies.
Yu Jie said: â€œClean technologies such as wind energy belong to manufacturers in the developed world, so we have to pay a high price for them in Europe.
We have been promised technology transfers for years, but nothing ever comes of it.â€ The message seems to have got through. In September 2005 the EU and China launched a partnership on climate change with an initial budget of $6.1m, to assess the viability of technologies to sequester carbon in proximity to coal-fired power stations (12).
According to Lester Brown of the US research organisation the Earth Policy Institute, over the next 25 years the planet will suffer an ecological catastrophe if Chinaâ€™s population adopts current US lifestyles. If, by 2031, each Chinese were to use as much oil as an American does today, the country would get through 99m barrels of crude oil a day. Worldwide daily production is currently some 79m barrels. If, over the same period, per capita coal consumption were to reach US levels, China would burn 2.8m tonnes of coal per year, more than the current annual global production of 2.5m tonnes.
â€œClimate change,â€ Brown warned, â€œcould spiral out of controlâ€ (13).
Translated by Donald Hounam
AgnÃ¨s SinaÃ¯ is a journalist, co-author of â€˜Sauver la Terreâ€™ (Fayard, Paris,
2003) and co-writer of a television documentary series â€˜Terriens amers, paradis perdusâ€™ to be broadcast by Arte later this year
(1) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2001.
(2) The Peopleâ€™s Republic of China Initial National Communication on Climate Change, Beijing, October 2004.
(3) Greenpeace, Yellow River at Risk, Environmental Impact Assessment on the Yellow River Source Region by Climate Change, October 2005.
(5) Rock and soil whose temperature remains at or below freezing point for long periods.
(6) Including hydroelectricity, which leaves unresolved the controversy surrounding mega-dams such as the Three Gorges project on the Yangtze.
(7) Worldwatch Institute, State of the World 2005: Redefining Global Security, Washington, 2005.
(8) 67% of Chinaâ€™s energy comes from coal.
(9) Under the Kyoto Protocol, â€œgrandfatheringâ€ allocates pollution permits to firms on the basis of their past emissions.
(10) According to the National Climate Change Coordination Committee, 25 October 2005.
(11) Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, Asian Perspectives on Climate Regime Beyond 2012, Japan, 2005.
(12) The idea is to extract the carbon from smoke emissions then pipe it underground to strata from which oil and gas are extracted, or to deep aquifers. So far this costly technology has not been perfected and has no guaranteed environmental benefit. On the Sino-European project see http://www.europa.eu.int/comm/ envir…
(13) Lester R Brown, â€œLearning from China: Why the Western Economic Model Will Not Work for the Worldâ€, Eco-Economy Update, 9 March 2005.