It’s often said that China’s rise will present one of the world’s greatest security challenges this century.
- Water scarcity is one of the country’s most-pressing environmental concerns
- Experts say environmental threats act as a “threat multiplier” on existing tensions
- They say China’s carbon neutral pledge could also be seen as a play to take a leadership role
While China has promised the world a peaceful rise, its “wolf warrior diplomacy”, fast-growing military, and territorial claim to most of the South China Sea despite having no legal basis, suggest otherwise.
But there’s another, less understood consequence of China’s rise — and that’s to do with the enormous scale of its emissions.
Richard Smith, an author and US-based expert in Chinese history and economics, said China’s rising emissions — constituting nearly a third of the global total — poses “the single biggest threat to life on Earth”.
“What’s uniquely dangerous about the Chinese case is that its emissions are … growing so fast that scientists tell us they could eventually doom the climate on their own regardless of what the rest of the world does,” Mr Smith wrote in Foreign Policy magazine.
“In the most optimistic Chinese Government scenario, coal and other fossil fuels will still provide at least two-thirds of China’s electricity until as late as 2050, by which time it will be too late to matter.”
China recently pledged to be carbon neutral by 2060, but the country’s sheer scale makes this very difficult.
China is the world’s largest emitter of CO2 — one of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming — and it is also the world’s largest consumer and investor in renewable energy.
However, its renewables capacity is nowhere near the levels that could allow China to wean off fossil fuels and meet its economic growth targets in the short term.
Experts have said that global warming would have profound effects on global security, as fluctuating weather patterns and increasingly scarce resources could exacerbate geopolitical tensions.
For China, environmental issues could also have profound impacts on the stability of the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarian rule — and it’s something Beijing is abundantly aware of.
“There’s an assumption from a lot of people that China doesn’t understand that its pollution is a problem, where I think actually, Chinese leaders are much more up-to-date and aware of all the issues surrounding climate change than most Western leaders,” Jonna Nyman, an expert in international energy and climate politics at the UK’s University of Sheffield, told the ABC.
“The issue is the scale of the problem they’re actually facing, which is gargantuan.
China’s environmental ‘threat multipliers’
Pichamon Yeophantong, a political scientist and China expert at UNSW Canberra, told the ABC that environmental threats act as a “threat multiplier” on existing tensions such as China’s urban-rural divide, rather than being the source of conflict.
Mr Smith said environmental stress could add further tension in regions where Beijing is sometimes viewed with suspicion, including Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia.
“In Tibet, locals have long resisted ‘modernisation’ efforts by China — Chinese efforts to introduce rice farming, their suppression of yak herding and forced urbanisation of Tibetan herders, the urbanised destruction of the countryside around Lhasa, the trans-Tibet railroad to China,” Mr Smith said.
“In Xinjiang, Chinese resource extraction, the mines, oil drilling, the coal-to-chemicals plants have made pollution in Xinjiang worse than in Beijing.
The impact of climate change on China’s diverse ecosystem could also make social and economic divides even more pronounced.
For example, the vast North China Plain — a region with one of the highest population densities on Earth — may experience such severe extreme heat by the latter half of this century, it would render the region uninhabitable if emissions continued unabated.
In the Hindu Kush Himalayas (HKH), it’s predicted that about a third of its glaciers will melt, even if the world keeps average temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2100. If temperatures rise by 2 degrees, two-thirds of it will melt, which could intensify flooding and disrupt agricultural seasons for billions downstream.
Meanwhile, recent research by not-for-profit Climate Central suggested that sea-level rise will plunge China’s coastal cities lower than tide levels by 2050 more than previously predicted, even if emissions are reduced moderately.
“[Data shows] China is a country with high vulnerability to climate change and is more vulnerable to climate change than the global average in many ways, including sea-level rise,” Hongyu Guo, assistant director at Beijing’s environmental advocacy body Greenovation Hub, told the ABC.
“According to the China Maritime Disaster Bulletin, China’s coastal sea level has been rising at an accelerating pace in the past 40 years.
The threat from within
In the short term, one of the most pressing issues for China is arguably water scarcity.
China is home to 20 per cent of the global population, but the country has access to only 7 per cent of the globe’s fresh water, according to a 2018 report from China Dialogue, a non-profit organisation looking into China’s environmental challenges.
About 80 per cent of the water it does have is concentrated in the south.
Meanwhile China’s north — which has 64 per cent of China’s farmland and more than 696 million people — suffers from acute water stress (where total water consumption drops below 500 cubic metres per person, per day).
To ease this pressure, Beijing built the South-North canal, which transfers drinking water 1,500 kilometres from southern China to Beijing.
However, the sheer volume of China’s water consumption means infrastructure like the canal isn’t the silver bullet to solve the country’s water woes.
In 2017, government statistics figures showed agriculture and industry — also concentrated in the north — consumed about 84 per cent of the country’s water.
Meanwhile, the overuse of pesticides and fertilisers for agriculture has polluted 70 per cent of China’s water table, according to government surveys.
Charles Parton, author of China Dialogue’s 2018 report and the UK Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee Special Adviser on China, concluded that water scarcity could present a grave threat to China’s stability.
“Clearly if a sudden water crisis were to hit, some very hard choices would be forced upon the Government between agriculture, power generation, industry and everyday use by the people,” Mr Parton wrote.
Local vulnerabilities, global ramifications
Water has also been a contentious issue between China and countries downstream, including Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
To date, China has no formal water treaties with those countries.
In April this year, American environmental consultancy Eyes on Earth accused China of withholding water during a 2019 drought that devastated communities downstream.
The Mekong River Commission confirmed China withheld critical data from its Mekong water stations.
Dr Yeophantong said conflicts involving Asia’s largest rivers, including the Mekong, could turn into “a catastrophe that has spill-over effects on other countries”, as climate change is tipped to exacerbate floods and drier monsoon seasons, which could significantly disrupt livelihoods.
David Molden, director-general at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), an inter-governmental panel for the HKH, said neighbouring countries — including nuclear-armed Pakistan, India and China — needed to establish “escape valves” to avoid conflict.
“You’ve got [conflicts between] India-China, India-Pakistan, and you’ve got Myanmar as well. So this is a conflict-prone region,” Mr Molden said.
“If we can focus on science, if we can focus on the environment, we can create important [multilateral] discussion platforms where [countries] can work together.”
Last week, the eight countries that make up the region — Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Nepal, Myanmar and Pakistan — signed a joint declaration at an ICIMOD-brokered summit to investigate the establishment of a HKH multilateral bloc.
Dr Yeophantong said issues over the Mekong could prompt China to launch a similar initiative with its South-East Asian neighbours.
“But at the same time, both India and China are so focused on the military and security aspects they are neglecting the environmental dimension.”
When announcing China’s carbon neutrality pledge last month, President Xi Jinping told delegates at a virtual General Assembly meeting that “humankind can no longer afford to ignore the repeated warnings of nature“.
While his statement could have been read as an environmental call-to-arms, the pledge can also provide China with an edge over the US in their strategic rivalry.
“I could see [the pledge] being a key trigger for worries among some Western states, because I think the US under Donald Trump has really left a massive power vacuum,” Sheffield’s Dr Nyman said.
“Things like this new pledge, alongside other Chinese leadership initiatives, have really stepped in to fill that gap.”
But regardless of whether or not China wins in the geopolitical stakes, there’s one battle Beijing ultimately needs to win.
“They just have to be confronted on this.”
Additional reporting by Dong Xing