This is the 117th article in the series —
The China Chronicles.
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China’s urbanisation rate
has been amongst the highest in the world. In the 40 years of reforms, it moved from 19.9 percent to 58.5 percent, with 46 percent of the population having moved from rural to urban areas. This resulted in what is referred to urbanisation with Chinese characteristics
defined by the three words — exit, mobility, and entry. This meant ‘exiting from rural provinces,’ ‘moving of labour into industrialised centres,’ and ensuring ‘easy entry of migrants and services for them to live.’
However, over the years, several leading urban centres like Beijing and Shanghai which have huge coal consumption came under severe criticism for its bad air quality, water scarcity, and the rising sea-water level threats.
Recently, a paper
written by Chinese scholars from Guangzhou in peer-reviewed ‘Frontiers in Sustainable Cities’
captured global attention. The paper, ‘Keeping Track of Greenhouse Gas Emission Reduction Progress and Targets in 167 Cities Worldwide,’ highlights how 23 Chinese cities make up for the top 15 percent of the highest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitters globally, accounting for 52 percent of the total global emissions. This study points out that Chinese cities with high per capita emissions are generally with high urbanisation, and specifically where there is burgeoning manufacturing and transportation activities.
A climate mapping exercise
conducted in Chinese cities by a global environmental NGO in July 2021, pointed out how ‘areas undergoing rapid urbanisation are experiencing a steep rise in risk. But they are not as well-researched or funded to address climate risk.’ <1>
The exercise directly links the risk to the growing city centres where population density is highest and where high economic activity is concentrated.
Parts of Shanghai and Guangzhou-Shenzhen regions would experience a more than 25 percent rise in extreme rainfall, and the Guangzhou-Shenzhen region would experience more drought.
This study, which made deductions from the 2014 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report
, pointed out that the temperature rise in some parts of Beijing could exceed 2.6°Celsius by 2100. It also stated how climate change would cause summers to become longer by 28 days in Beijing, 24-28 days in Shanghai, and by over 40 days in Guangzhou-Shenzhen. It deducted that parts of Shanghai and Guangzhou-Shenzhen regions would experience a more than 25 percent rise in extreme rainfall, and the Guangzhou-Shenzhen region would experience more drought.
Realising the pressure that such uncontrolled urbanisation has put on the natural and built environment in these regions impacting climate, the 14th Five-Year Plan
of China that was revealed in 2020, introduced a ‘new urbanisation plan.’ These plans which are drawn out every five years are social and economic development initiatives issued by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) since 1953. The highlights of these new initiatives are:
- Building new modern metropolitan areas and promoting the interconnection of infrastructure and the mutual recognition and sharing of public services with the existing megacities.
- Improving governance mechanisms for the rural migrant populations in cities like housing reforms, insurance, and livelihood opportunities reducing the existing restrictions.
- Create integrated urban agglomerations that optimise the internal spatial structures, build ecological barriers, and form multi-centre, multi-level, and multi-node networked urban agglomerations.
- Construction of ‘new-type’ low carbon cities which are green friendly in infrastructure, built environment, and with sustainable transport that are climate adaptative with adequate green finance.
- Innovation in governance through a digital approach with networks and online platforms for community care, logistics and distribution, convenience stores and supermarkets, housekeeping and property management, and other services.
While these measures are useful for decentralising cities and moving its economic and manufacturing bases away from its megacity centres, China will need to be more specific in spelling out its climate plans for each of the 23 Chinese cities if it needs to meet its commitment
of a CO2
emissions peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060. Till now only a few cities have aligned their climate goals to the plan.
The current new urbanisation plan takes a different and more inclusive view on migrants in cities as far as their livelihood is concerned. But it will have to take a more serious view on the interplay of climate and migration. The last plan, the 13th five-year plan
(2016⎯20) while highlighting urbanisation, was discriminatory towards elderly migrants. It aimed at replacing the old migrant lot with the upwardly mobile, aspirational, and new generation workers in megacities, asking them to go back to their villages and rural hometowns which they had left because of climate vulnerabilities.
While China is known for being the largest manufacturer and consumer of electric vehicles, and electric transport is an important component of its ‘new-type’ cities, it will need to be mindful that clean energy is used.
While all this is important, the crux of China’s climate problem lies in coal consumption. While China is known for being the largest manufacturer and consumer of electric vehicles, and electric transport is an important component of its ‘new-type’ cities, it will need to be mindful that clean energy is used. It needs to eliminate the use of any fossil fuel-powered vehicles and invest in low carbon materials for its mass transit transport.
In the past few years, we have seen efforts coming from the sub-regional governments of cities in China. Beijing is assessing the feasibility of setting aside low-emission zones, Wuhan is setting an example as a sponge city for tackling its water scarcity issues and Hubei is combining solar power with agriculture. There are several others working on issues of energy, transport, housing, and land.
According to China climate experts
, NGOs, central government, and local government all have a different understanding and different levels of awareness of climate governance. The success of China’s programme will lie in a centralised effort taken to align all the 687 cities of China with the climate goals of the country.
Greenpeace East Asia, Press Note, July 14, 2021.
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