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An example of the restoration of a degraded mountain slope in China. The country has numerous initiatives underway to battle climate change. Anthony Mills

What Africa can learn from China about climate change adaptation

China is facing numerous threats from climate change.

These include: increased mean annual temperature, increased frequency and severity of dust storms, decreased rainfall in some coastal areas, increased severity of snow storms and a risk of glacier lake overflow.

These climate-related threats are exacerbated by China’s rapid economic development and growing population. These climate threats are expected to have a negative impact on its economy and environment.

China is already experiencing widespread environmental degradation, particularly as a result of pollution. Coal use is particularly problematic. China uses more coal and emits more greenhouse gases than any other country.

The degradation of air quality is particularly affecting the health of the country’s urban population. In 2013, for example, smog in Beijing was 40 times greater than the level considered safe by the World Health Organisation.

In addition to pollution, water depletion is recognised as a primary contributor to environmental degradation in China. Overuse and waste of the country’s water resources have resulted in water shortages across the country.

But the way China is approaching adaptation to climate change is potentially a beacon for other countries to follow. African countries will be hardest hit by climate change and would do well to look to China for ideas on how they can combat the effects.

China uses the following three strategies to good effect when dealing with climate change.


The Chinese government acknowledges that climate change and environmental degradation are major threats. This is reflected in its national policies, most notably its latest Five Year Plan. The plan includes ambitious and far‑reaching directives to support the transition of the country to an ecological society.

China’s climate-related priorities include reducing the energy intensity of economic growth, reducing the rate of greenhouse gas emissions, and expanding the total area of forest coverage. The 13th five-year plan is being developed and is expected to advance these priorities.

The China Council for International Co-operation on Environment and Development was set up as a high-level international advisory body. Its aim is to provide inputs to the cabinet’s decision‑making on the environment and on development. Its job is also to guide management of the threats posed by environmental degradation and climate change.

China’s leadership has emphasised the need to rapidly move towards being an “ecological civilisation” where resources are restored instead of being depleted or damaged. Revisions to the Constitution in 2013 included the need to promote the construction of what the government calls an ecological civilization.

The three Ps

Investments in climate change adaptation require patience, perseverance, and peer-reviewed science.

Patience is needed because many adaptation interventions can take decades to come to fruition. The restoration of a landscape with climate-resilient tree species to conserve soils and produce ecosystem goods for communities is one such example.

Perseverance is needed because numerous mistakes will be made. Natural systems are complex. Nobody can advise with confidence which adaptation intervention is most appropriate for a particular area.

Trying to determine which tree species will be deemed as climate-resilient is an exercise in perseverance. Rigorous experiments will need to be done to provide data on the effects of adaptation interventions.

This is where peer-reviewed science is essential. Scientists must play a prominent role in guiding adaptation interventions in innovative ways. They must also develop a credible evidence base for informing future adaptation investments.

China has invested and continues to invest in such long-term research. For example, the Chinese Academy of Science established the Chinese Ecosystem Research Network in 1988. It focuses on ecosystem management, environmental protection, agriculture, disaster reduction and natural resource management.

The network’s activities include:

  • research on soil and water conservation interventions;

  • restoration of degraded ecosystems; and

  • climate-smart agriculture.

Best practices that come from these investigations are taken to development planners to form Chinese regional conservation and socioeconomic development plans.

This knowledge is also shared with other countries. For example, one project, EbA South, is providing technical assistance to other developing countries with similar challenges.

Large-scale implementation

When China plans and implements these initiatives they are undertaken at appropriately large scales. An example of this is China’s use of the ecosystem-based adaptation approach to climate change. This harnesses the benefits of functional ecosystems to reduce the negative impacts of climate change.

Such adaptation needs to be undertaken at a large scale to see substantial benefits. For example, China is managing entire watersheds to ensure greater quality and quantity of water flowing in rivers. One such initiative is the Loess Plateau Watershed Rehabilitation Project.

The Loess Plateau was first cultivated 10,000 years ago and covers 640,000 km² in the upper and middle reaches of the Yellow River. Climate change and inappropriate agricultural practices had led to extreme erosion and a decline in agricultural productivity. The government consequently changed land use policies and established programs to restore the grassland ecosystem over millions of hectares.

This intervention is recognised as one of the largest and most successful erosion control and climate change adaptation initiatives in the world. Grain and fruit production have increased considerably. Sediment loss into the Yellow River has been reduced by tens of millions of tonnes yearly. Thousands of hectares of terraces have been established and thousands more have been reforested with multi-use tree species.

Africa’s policymakers and decision-makers would do well to turn to China for assistance on managing climate change. Thinking deeply about the benefits of an ecological civilisation, long-term scientific research and landscape-scale interventions will undoubtedly benefit the continent.

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