Climate Justice in China

Climate Justice in China


  • Climate change hits urban and rural areas equally
  • “Climate poverty” affects at-risk agricultural communities and communities dependent on the ecological health of their water bodies
  • Groups of affected people are highly diverse and can be found in all parts of China
  • Minority ethnic groups, such as Tibetan and Uighurs, also have access to the climate protection programs



The discussion regarding climate justice in China follows various topics:

  • Most commonly mentioned is the responsibility of the developed Western world, which built its wealth by means of industrialization and the concomitant release of GHG emissions over the past 150 years. It is felt that therefore the developed world has the responsibility to help the developing world shoulder the financial burden and technology needs to mitigate the effects of climate change without hampering their development.
  • Another argument points to the process of achieving carbon neutrality through a change in China’s traditional industry structure. The transformation to a low carbon, green economy is expected to pose significant challenges to regions reliant on traditional high emission industries.
  • A somewhat different perspective is provided through the discussion around “climate poverty” which points to the adverse effects that climate change has on vulnerable regions and groups such as agricultural communities or communities dependent on the ecological health of the water bodies they live close to. Flooding, draughts or water pollution caused by extreme weather events directly impacts their means of production and the basis of their livelihoods.

China’s climate change related threats are as diverse as its regions: the affluent coastal regions are facing rising sea levels, while the central North and some coastal areas (e.g., Henan, Shandong, or Zhejiang) are experiencing extreme heatwaves. Torrential rains and flooding batter not only the southern coastal regions but have moved increasingly inland with increased precipitation measured in the eastern part of the Yangtze River, central and northern Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, northern and western Xinjiang. In the northwest, glacier retreat, evaporation and desertification are increasing; in north and northeast China, temperature rise is significant and water resources are scarce; in the southwest, biodiversity is affected and mountain hazards such as mudslides and landslides caused by heavy rainfall are posing serious hazards. China also sees shifting vector ecology (e.g., in Tibet warming temperatures and better city-to-city connecting infrastructure have introduced a species of mosquitos that was previously unrecorded for the average altitude of more than 4,000 meters).

Therefore, the groups of affected people are highly diverse. Heatwave related deaths occur in highly populated and economically advanced provinces and claim their victims often among the elderly population. Victims of flooding can be the population of rich communities along the coast of Guangdong as well as farming communities in Sichuan. Climate change has increased the ecological vulnerability of poor areas, adding even more threat of permanent poverty to the inhabitants of those areas. About 95% of China’s absolute poor population and most of the poor areas are located in ecologically fragile areas. Estimates say that there are about 200 million people living in ecological poverty in China, covering 44% of the country’s land area and 15.4% of the country’s total population. Another life-threatening factor is air pollution caused by ambient PM2.5 which – according to a 2015 study – can be attributed to some 1.1 million deaths in China, with rural areas being most affected due to the use of traditional fuels and inefficient stoves used for cooking and heating.

Since the 12th Five-Year-Plan (2010 – 2015) sustainable development has continuously advanced in priority. China, considering itself still a developing country with very uneven development across its territory and the respective inhabitants, has embraced the concept of low carbon transition as a stimulus for innovation for higher quality development. Similar to previous plans that promoted the development of the chemical industry in the second half of the 90ies and early 2000s, the government pursues a strategy of steering technical development with the help of policy and financial incentives. This recipe has proven successful in the establishment of China’s solar industry as world leader in this technology (Post 37) providing livelihoods and jobs for its people both in urban as well as remote areas.

It started with humble beginnings and with air pollution control policies aimed at reducing the number and intensity of smog days in China’s mega cities and surrounding areas. These policies regulated activities considered a possible cause for PM2.5 particles in the air and included measures from closing and shifting polluting companies, fitting technical solutions to reduce emissions, as well as the introduction of solar power in poorer, remote regions to reduce pollution from cooking and heating with coal.

In 2014 China released its National Adaptation Strategy (NAS) which became an important guiding document, providing a framework and a set of guiding principles for provincial governments and line ministries to steer adaptation. The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) back then emphasized that the strategy was to be seen as an outline of work that would take time to implement. In February 2016, the NDRC and the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development followed up with the Urban Climate Change Adaptation Action Plan.

Briefly after becoming President, Xi Jinping himself coined the slogan “Green Water and Blue Mountains are like Silver and Gold Mountains”, highlighting that environmental protection and economic development can very well go hand in hand. He furthermore introduced he political philosophy of “ecological civilization” which informs almost all development-related government documents and plans today.

In recent months, China has issued new guidelines concerning clean production “14th Five Year Plan for Green Industrial Production” and the “Technical Guidance on Accounting for Gross Terrestrial Ecosystem Product (GEP)” further providing guidelines to achieving “green manufacturing”, “green supply chain” or “green consumption”.  Contrary to countries that seem to see a low-carbon transformation as a threat to their industrial base, commercial activity and common welfare, China has recognized that developing green production technology or supply processes may provide a competitive advantage, secure existing and create future jobs, and ensure its export & production hub leadership.

In conclusion, it is perhaps interesting to note, that China’s ruling Communist Party bases its legitimacy on the promotion of the well-being of all its people but especially the weak and those without production means. A century ago, the Party was founded with the intent to give voice to and improve the lot of the weakest in China’s society: the workers and the laborers. Under President Xi, this credo has been renewed coupled with a vow to root out corruption within the party and better support those groups in society that did not participate in the economic goldrush brought about by the opening-up policy of recent years. While Western news continues to focus on headlines deploring the plight of the Uighurs (similar to that of the Tibetans a decade earlier), those minorities do not suffer more impact of climate change than others. Some government programs, such as the regreening efforts to restore grasslands and forests in China’s Northeast and West also benefit those minorities. Climate change does not singularly affect minorities which make up under 10 % of the overall 1.4 billion population (Post 30), it affects all people living across this vast country.



China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development

Mail: No. 5 Houyingfang Hutong, Xicheng District, Beijing, China 100035

Fax: (+86-10) 82200535



This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard Country Manager: Annette Wiedenbach


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