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Better risk management


On July 20, the heaviest hour of rainfall ever reliably recorded in China (201.9 mm) fell on Zhengzhou, capital of Central China's Henan province, killing 302 people, including 14 who drowned in a subway tunnel and six in a road tunnel. China is not alone in suffering from extreme weather events. From catastrophic rainstorms and floods in Europe and Asia to record-breaking heat waves and forest fires in North America, extreme weather events have swept the world. The global climate change factors behind these climate extremes cannot be ignored. As the climate warms, low-probability, high-impact weather events like the torrential rain in Zhengzhou will become more frequent and intense and have greater impacts on society. The evidence is overwhelming that climate risks represent the greatest threat facing humanity today.

China is one of the countries most susceptible to the adverse effects of climate change. Since the mid-20th century, warming in China has been significantly faster than that of the rest of the world. Climate change poses a serious challenge to China's food production security, water resources, ecology, energy and economic development. It is imperative that China take immediate action to address the risks of climate change, which arise from both extreme weather events such as typhoons, rainstorms and heat waves, and slow-onset incremental environmental changes such as sea level rise and droughts.

As the world's largest energy consumer and carbon emitter, China is firmly committed to addressing the risks of global climate change. On Sept 22, 2020, President Xi Jinping announced that China aims to peak its carbon emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060, which demonstrates China's determination to lead the world in climate change governance. Despite China's remarkable achievements in climate mitigation, much more attention needs to be paid to climate adaptation and risk management. After all, even if China and other countries fulfill their commitments to carbon neutrality, millions of people will still be suffering from the irreversible impacts of climate change. The question becomes whether China is ready for the challenge of addressing climate risks now and what institutional arrangements are still needed.

Our recent research examined ways to enhance China's climate risk governance system at the national and local levels. The report found that China's climate risk governance consists of two parts, namely a disaster risk governance system and a climate change adaptation governance system. On the whole, China's climate risk governance still focuses on traditional disaster prevention and mitigation efforts, while adaptation actions are still at a preliminary stage, and the two efforts have not yet been coordinated and integrated.

As a country that has suffered frequent natural disasters, China is quite adept at managing conventional meteorological hazards. However, the system has yet to adapt to the fast changing climate. The torrential rain that happened in Zhengzhou on July 20 reveals loopholes in urban meteorological disaster management, such as incomplete disaster contingency plans that fail to consider disaster scenarios such as subway flooding, inadequate collaboration among organizations, and weak public awareness of disaster risk prevention. A strengthened meteorological disaster prevention and management system requires more timely risk communication, more agile responses from government departments, and closer cross-departmental, multi-stakeholder collaborations.

In the immediate aftermath of the devastating flood in Zhengzhou, both President Xi and Premier Li Keqiang issued instructions on flood prevention and disaster relief, particularly emphasizing the safety of urban subways, tunnels and other underground spaces. Following the instructions, provincial and city governments all over China started to check and strengthen subway flood prevention within their respective jurisdictions. The quick policy learning under direct mandate of the central government demonstrates the Chinese government's strong ability in vertical transmission of the lessons learned. In the future, Chinese cities must enhance policy learning and experience sharing with each other in the area of disaster risk management.

Although there are still few substantive policies specifically dedicated to climate change adaptation in China, the mainstreaming of adaptation is underway with policies formulated by various government departments and industries increasingly taking into account the needs of climate change adaptation. Currently, Chinese cities have mainly achieved climate change adaptation through "policy bundling", nesting climate adaptation in policies in related areas such as low-carbon pilot cities and pilot sponge cities. Some pioneering cities such as Qingdao in Shandong province are exploring how to formulate climate change adaptation plans through participation in international collaboration projects, such as Adapting to Climate Change in China. As future climate risks escalate, it is insufficient to carry out adaptation actions in a "policy bundling" mode only. A more systematic and targeted approach to climate change adaptation is needed.

The risks arising from climate change are systemic and affect all aspects of the socioeconomic system, thus requiring an integrated approach to risk management. It is imperative to adhere to and improve the existing meteorological disaster prevention and mitigation system, continuously strengthen capacity building for climate change adaptation, and establish a climate risk governance system in which disaster risk management and climate change adaptation are closely integrated.

Zhao Xiaofan is an assistant professor in the Division of Public Policy at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Cai Qin is an associate professor of Tsinghua University Centre for Art and Science Research. The authors contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

Contact the editor at editor@chinawatch.cn