A Chinese official, Zheng Guogang, went on record with the Xinhua news agency that climate change poses a serious threat to Chinese infrastructure. Zheng pointed out that China is already experiencing temperatures that are higher than the global average, and that these temperatures increase the risk of natural disasters in China. These statements are consistent with ASP’s analysis of China’s vulnerability to the effects of climate change in its Global Security Defense Index on Climate Change.
This admission by a Chinese official is rare. Historically, China has been hesitant to admit the potential impacts of climate change, especially since China is the world’s largest emitter (accounting for about 25% of the world’s global CO2 emissions). Its rapidly expanding economy has fueled a demand for cheap and dirty fuel (primarily coal) in order to maintain this growth, and Zheng’s comments are an indication that China may be rethinking this policy.
This statement comes at a pivotal time. Last November in a bilateral agreement with the United States China agreed to reach peak emissions by 2030, and has stated that it will make some contribution to the upcoming climate negotiations in Paris later this year. Up until now, China has always been hesitant to make any admission of a responsibility to address climate change.
While China may be making steps in the right direction, it should be noted that these are the tiniest of baby steps. In the past, China’s policy has been to free ride on climate issues in international forums, as it shirked the undertaking of any commitments under the Kyoto Protocol and has avoided making any firm commitments to act on climate change. Meanwhile, its recent domestic actions to reduce emissions, increase efficiency, and deploy renewable energies have been among the world’s leaders.
Zheng’s comments though do give insight into what may motivate China more than anything to get serious on climate change—the threat it poses to its infrastructure, economy, and national security. If China fails to take action on climate change then it is going to pay a higher price than most.