ICE is hosting the World Federation of Engineering Organizations’ (WFEO) Committee on Engineering and the Environment from 2019 to 2023. As part of a new blog series, committee members provide a snapshot of climate change impacts and solutions in their part of the world. To kick off, Professor Jianping Wu of Beijing’s Tsinghua University and his colleagues, Jing He and Xiaodong Guan, survey the scene in China.
To kick off the WFEO Climate Stories blog series, Professor Jianping Wu of Tsinghua University and his colleagues Jing He and Xiaodong Guan give some insight into climate change in China.
What is the level of acceptance in China that climate change is man-made and what actions have been put in place to address it?
China’s overall goal is to “have CO2 emissions peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060”, President Xi Jinping said in an address to the UN General Assembly in September last year.
In recent years, China has implemented a series of activities and a national strategy to tackle climate change, including reducing industrial practices that create pollution, boosting the use of clean energy, saving energy and improving efficiency, promoting the construction of a carbon market, and increasing forests which can act as carbon-storing sinks. It has participated positively in global climate governance, upholding multilateralism, as well as fulfilling its obligations under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement.
China is implementing the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)’s South-South Cooperation on climate change and is mobilising stronger support for international cooperation on the issue through the BRI International Green Development Coalition and other platforms. [BRI is a strategy that seeks to connect Asia with Africa and Europe via land and maritime networks. The South-South Cooperation is a framework for collaboration between developing countries in the South.]
What are the key issues in China that you consider to be caused by climate change?
- Agricultural production: The impact of climate change is mainly affecting crop patterns (the proportion of land under cultivation of different crops at different points of time) and farming and fluctuations in grain output as well as aggravating agricultural disasters. According to China’s National Meteorology Data Service Centre, climate change reduced yields of wheat and corn by 1.27% and 1.73% respectively in between the years 1998 and 2008, and the amount of drought-affected arable land has increased nationwide.
- Contradiction between water supply and demand: Climate warming may reduce the runoff of rivers in north China while increasing the runoff in the south. It will increase the average annual evaporation in various river basins – for example, the evaporation of the Yellow River and inland river regions may rise by about 15%, according to the Chinese government.
- Increased risk of disasters in coastal areas: As extreme weather events are the main cause of disasters along the coast of China, the Yellow River, Yangtze River and Pearl River Delta are the most vulnerable areas. Climate change may increase the sea level along the country’s coast by 0.01-0.16m by 2030. Many coastal areas are then more likely to be flooded and the impact of extreme weather will be greater.
- Changes in land: To take glaciers as an example, it is estimated that by 2050 the area of glaciers in western China will be reduced by 27.2%. The peak is expected to occur from 2030 to 2050.
- Diseases: Climate change may cause an increase in the frequency and intensity of heatwaves and therefore increase the extent and scope of the likes of cardiovascular disease, malaria, dengue fever and heat stroke.
What do you think engineering could do about these issues?
In our opinion, engineering can help to provide technologies to reduce carbon emissions and develop new forms of energy. Ways it could do so include:
- Adjusting the energy structure and boosting the use of renewable non-fossil energy such as wind or solar power. For example, it could promote the uptake of electric vehicles in China through vehicle innovations and encouraging public acceptance of their use.
- Strengthening the low-carbon transformation of critical urban infrastructure – for example, by promoting the electrification of public transport – and shifting long-distance transport from road to rail, as well as to rail-port combined.
- Undertaking research into new green building technology. In 2022, buildings that use green technology will account for 60% of new urban constructions in China.
- The digital economy and technology in China such as big data, industrial internet and 5G could help to improve production and energy efficiency while also helping to realise the potential of low-carbon transformation in the industrial sector.
- Data measurement and management can have an impact on reducing carbon emissions and increasing the use of new forms of energy.
What are the main barriers to effective climate action in both your country and the engineering profession?
- Reducing carbon emissions means increasing the economic burden. The development of clean energy and energy-saving technology requires sizeable funds. It is of great significance in the long run but may affect economic recovery in the immediate future.
- Psychological factors are another issue. People have become accustomed to high energy consumption. Once emission reduction affects their personal lives, especially if they are forced to change their living habits, they may become resistant.
- Factories and other industrial processes in developed and developing countries are a further barrier. For now, developed countries provide funds and technology to developing countries to improve their living environments, but these high-pollution enterprises produce air pollutants.
What are the key priorities for climate action within engineering?
These should be concentrated on high-quality monitoring and observation, especially in vulnerable areas, so that engineers can limit the potential impact of climate change. Improving the accuracy of climate models, especially concerning their regional scaling, predictions for the next 10 to 30 years and for extreme weather events, is also a priority. The climate is changing. How, and how much it changes is of huge importance to policy-makers. Engineers can make reliable scientific assessments on climate change characteristics, such as atmosphere, ocean and land surface, to ensure policy-making meets the requirements of economic and social development.