Our Programmes



Sign up to our newsletter.

Follow ODI

The global impact of China's approach to climate change

Written by Rebecca Nadin

A new study published yesterday by the UK Met Office finds governments ‘considerably underestimate’ the risk of simultaneous crop failure in the world’s major farming regions. So, in our globalised food system, are we paying enough attention to the climate action plans of big growers and consumers like China?

To date, international efforts have been focused on cutting greenhouse gas emissions, with adaptation largely relegated to a national concern. But if a changing climate means China can no longer feed its 1.3 billion mouths, the fallout won’t be contained within its borders.

The Met Office estimates that, every decade, the chance of a simultaneous maize crop failure in ‘the world’s main growers’, China and the US, is 6%. This could lead to catastrophic food shortages and price hikes in developing countries where maize is a staple food.

Food security a top priority for China

Food crises are not new to China. The country has faced floods and droughts for millennia and knows full well the impact of ill-conceived government policies, such as the ‘Great Leap Forward’ where conservative estimates put the death toll from starvation at 30 million over four years.

Yet, changing weather patterns and more extreme weather events present a new threat to food security. Over 60 years, China’s annual grain production has fallen by more than 27 million tons. In 2008, severe snow and ice storms affected southern provinces unaccustomed to cold snaps, resulting in damage to 11.9 million hectares of crops.

The good news is policy-makers can rest easy that food security is one of China’s top priorities. The Chinese government is acutely aware that it has to feed 19% of the world’s population using just 9% of its arable land and 6% of its renewable water resources. It has invested in doing so, with remarkable results. Over the past 25 years, China alone accounts for a two-thirds reduction in undernourishment in developing countries.

China’s adaptation plans

On top of the changing climate, China must get to grips with polluted water and soil resources, soil erosion, land degradation, and ecosystem and habitat loss. To address all these challenges, the country has been heavily investing in sector, urban and national adaptation plans.

China published its National Adaptation Strategy (NAS) in 2013 after several years of considerable cross-government work. The country’s scientists are continuing to innovate to develop drought-resistant crops and devise solutions to changing growing seasons – ideas it is now sharing with other developing countries.

China’s scientists have also discovered that some effects of climate change could be beneficial to food production. Chinese farmers are planting southern rice varieties and winter wheat crops in new northern and western territories. The country’s annual cropping index (the share of arable land used for crop production) is up from 143% in 1985 to 164% in 2001, in part because of the drive towards greater cultivation in the Tibetan Plateau and other highland areas.

But if, as part of China’s adaptation planning, the government decides to move more of its agricultural production from the traditional breadbasket provinces of Jiangxi and Jilin to the Tibetan Plateau, what does this mean in terms of transboundary water resources, given that it shares 110 rivers and lakes with 18 downstream countries?

Adaptation isn’t just a domestic issue

Governments everywhere should wake up to the global and regional implications of adaptation plans in China and countries like it. Food security and water resources are often transboundary in nature (spanning provinces and countries). Policy-makers must also account for the interdependency of global supply and value chains.

As we take stock of the ‘effectiveness and adequacy’ of national adaptation plans under the UN climate process, we must also consider the resources needed to develop transboundary adaptation responses.

China’s climate leadership: an opportunity to drive national and transboundary adaptation

To avoid the Met Office report’s catastrophic scenarios, China must stay true to its word on adaptation and continue to invest domestically. But to show real leadership on climate change, it must also drive adaptation forward globally. This means not only sharing knowledge and providing finance under the Paris Agreement, but also ensuring its ‘Belt and Road’ infrastructure investments are resilient to climate change and equitable transboundary adaptation responses are developed.

The international community can no longer afford to leave adaptation as an afterthought; climate change is already a daily reality for farmers the world over and, in our globalised world, there’s nowhere to hide. Adaptation should no longer be the unwanted guest at the mitigation table.