China’s shifting position on climate change


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Sand dunes in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, China

In the Gobi, clues to China’s shifting position on climate change

While China’s commitment to combating climate change has long been contentious, the government now recognizes that an environmental strategy and economic growth go hand in hand.

Development and industrialization have dramatically transformed China from a less developed country to the globe’s second largest economy; the downside is this growth has been accompanied by a rapid degradation of its environment. China is the largest emitter of CO2 – it surpassed the U.S. in 2002 – as well as the top emitter of GHG. But in this generation, an unprecedented number of Chinese now have the ability to choose where they live and work, and the capacity to invest financially in their communities. Environmental quality, and specifically the condition of the air, is discussed openly. Research documents link pollution to shorter lifespans and higher health costs.

The Chinese government has made great strides in measuring pollution and implementing alert systems. With measurement, urban alerts have increased in frequency and level. As the Chinese Daily reported on Christmas Day 2015, approximately 50 cities in northern and eastern China had issued air pollution alerts.

Despite the view of many in the West, dealing with climate change is becoming more and more important for the Chinese government, as exemplified by the transformation of the Gobi Desert in recent years.

A case study: the Gobi Desert  

The Gobi is the fifth-largest desert in the world and Asia’s largest, spanning 1.3 million square kilometres. It stretches from the North China Plain to Mongolia and the Taklimakan Desert, much of it not sandy but exposed bare rock. The expansion of the Gobi is an often-overlooked element of the growth of urban smog; deforestation, overgrazing and depletion of water have quickened the pace of desertification, adding to the deterioration of air quality.

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Author: Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.

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