World Environment Day remindes people of the pressing need to address environmental issue
Though the world is currently grappling with the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, climate change is still a potent threat to our planet
  ·  2020-06-15  ·   Source: NO.25 JUNE 18, 2020
Oriental white storks, a national protected bird, are spotted on an iron tower in Tangshan, Hebei Province in north China, on June 9 (XINHUA)

World Environment Day on June 5 once again reminded people of the pressing need to address environmental issues. Though the world is currently grappling with the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, climate change is still a potent threat to our planet. Chao Qingchen, Deputy Director General of the National Climate Center (NCC), China Meteorological Administration, offers her insights on this issue of universal concern:

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates there is a 75 percent chance that 2020 will be the hottest year on record, and a 99.9 percent chance it will rank among the five hottest years ever. The last few years have been the hottest on meteorological records for the whole world, as well as China. Data from the U.S., UK and international bodies show that the first three months of 2020 were the warmest or second warmest months on record. The Global Seasonal Climate Update released by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in May shows that April 2020 tied with April 2016 as the warmest April on record. Although it is still too early to be sure whether 2020 will end up being the warmest year on record, the general trend of global warming is largely certain and beyond doubt.

According to reports published by international institutions such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the WMO and the World Economic Forum, more than 12,000 extreme weather and climatic events occurred globally in the 20 years from 1999 to 2018, which led to 495,000 deaths and $3.45 trillion in economic losses. In 2019, the average global surface temperature was about 1.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial (1850-1900) levels. The five years from 2015 to 2019 were the warmest on meteorological record. The average global sea level rose by 3.6 millimeters per year in the 10 years from 2006 to 2015, at a rate 2.5 times higher than in the 90 years from 1901 to 1990. The rise of global average sea level is expected to continue accelerating.

Sea-level rise, ocean warming, and acidification will increase risks in low-lying coastal areas, and some small island states will become uninhabitable by 2100 due to changes in the cryosphere and ocean. By mid-century (2031-50), the trend of global glacial material loss, permafrost melting and the loss of snow cover and Arctic sea ice will continue, which will affect river runoff and bring about many local disasters such as avalanches, landslides, glacial lake outburst floods, frozen soil melting and sinking. The risks to infrastructure, culture, tourism, and recreational resources in Alpine and Arctic regions will build up in the future.

International institutions predict that by 2050, the socio-economic impact of climate change will multiply from two to 20 times.

Potential dangers for China

Research by the NCC and other Chinese institutions shows that China will face more intense extreme weather conditions and climatic disasters in the future, with increasing risk of disasters such as extreme temperatures, floods, and droughts. Short-term heavy precipitation events will increase, and the recurrence interval of once-a-century hourly precipitation in big cities will shorten significantly, bringing risks to urban drainage.

In the last 60 years, the atmospheric environmental capacity of major Chinese city clusters decreased by 5 to 10 percent, and the self-purification capacity of the atmosphere went down, adding risk to human health. Drought, low temperatures, and more intense flooding may have a serious negative impact on the stability of the food system and a broader risk to food security, including significant adverse impact on rice production.

Global warming has reduced the overall size of glaciers in western China by about 18 percent, affecting downstream runoff and water resources, threatening ecological security, and even exacerbating the risk of poverty and migration in the western regions. The maximum freezing depth of frozen soil in China has decreased by an average of 6.4 centimeters per 10 years, which threatens the safe operation of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway and the Qinghai-Tibet Highway. The thawing of permafrost will also lead to the degradation of ecosystems in the source regions of the Yangtze and Yellow rivers and the inland river mountainous basins in China.

By the end of this century, the area of farmland affected by drought in China is expected to increase more than 1.5 times, and the highly vulnerable areas affected by typhoons in the eastern coastal areas will double. By around 2024, at least half of summers could have long-term heat waves, and the number of heat waves could triple by the end of the century. In the future, the suitable distribution range of 135 species of 208 endemic and endangered species in China could be reduced to about 50 percent of the current range.

In general, climate risk to natural ecosystems, food security, human health and biodiversity would further increase, which could in turn affect the education, culture, and tourism sectors.

Children paint a picture with their teacher to mark World Environment Day at a kindergarten in Huzhou, Zhejiang Province in east China, on June 5 (XINHUA)

Emission targets

The outbreak of the pandemic in early 2020 has led to a global recession. Global energy demand is expected to fall by 6 percent in 2020, leading to nearly 8 percent reduction in global energy-related carbon emissions. With the reopening of economies, emissions growth is likely to have a retaliatory rebound. According to reports of IPCC and United Nations Environment Programme, even if all current unconditional commitments under the Paris Agreement are implemented, temperatures are expected to rise by 3.2 degrees Celsius by the year 2100. To keep the rise within 2 degrees Celsius, annual emissions in 2030 need to be 15 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent lower than current unconditional nationally determined contributions imply, equivalent to about three years of total global greenhouse gas emissions. There is a long way to go to deal with climate change.

China has promoted climate change mitigation alongside ecological and environmental protection. Since the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in November 2012, China has adopted a series of measures of fundamental, pioneering, and long-lasting importance for historic, transformative and overall changes in both ecological and environmental protection and climate action. Such policies have brought a great sense of achievement, happiness, and security to the people. The efforts and achievements of the Chinese Government and people in mitigating and adapting to climate change have been recognized globally.

Recently, I participated in compiling relevant chapters of the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25) by the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Ministry of Ecological Environment, and China Meteorological Administration. Strategies on climate risk management and green low-carbon development were extensively discussed.

We are also assessing climate change risks through national research and development projects and international cooperation with the UK and other countries to develop new and better indicators to assess such risks.

At the end of the day, strengthening early warning of climate change risks, enhancing source management, and building a waste-free society are important approaches to achieving green and high-quality development as well as important platforms to lead global environmental governance and build a community with a shared future for humanity.

The article was first published on China Report

(Print Edition Title: The Burning Question)

Copyedited by Madhusudan Chaubey

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