Climate Change Research and Policies in China – Report of a visit to China May 11-16, 2009

by Lord Julian Hunt

UCL, Univ. Cambridge, House of Lords (vice president of Globe), Arizona State University

(Inst Plasma Physics, Hefei; Beijing Normal University and ASU funded this visit)

  1. Climate Research

(Based on a visit to China Meteorological Administration; the Beijing Climate Centre (BCC) and the Remote Sensing Centre)


(See BCC annual report for 2008;

  • The temperature over China has increased steadily, by more than 1deg C, since it began its steady rise after 1980 (p13). This is more than 40% greater than the global average over land areas. Note that this figure might be higher (by up to 1C according to the report) if the air pollution over China was absent.
  • The average  depth of the winter frozen soil over the Tibetan Plateau decreased suddenly in 1985; but over 30 years it has decreased by 10% (p28).
  • Recent climate events have been severe but not unprecedented; e.g. 1970’s drought was worse.
  • There has been a 10% increase in frequency in tropical cyclone reaching China (Hong Kong informed me in Dec that the strength is increasing too)


  • Recent seasonal predictions over China for 3 months ahead have agreed with observed trends – more precipitation over south/east China and less over India. This gives BCC some confidence about longer range seasonal and climate predictions.
  • I was informed that when seasonal predictions are issued by BCC (with some indication of probability like that of the UK Met Office), they are based on a combination of statistical and deterministic methods. The results of their statistical studies of tele-connections with El-Nino-La Nina, and Indian monsoon are taken into account.
  • In this annual report (for wide distribution inside and outside China, presumably including UNFCCC?) two scenarios beyond 2100 of a stabilisation of future green house gas concentrations  are emphasised, namely a doubling of GHG to 550ppm CO2(equivalent?) (x2 pre-industrial emissions) and 720ppm  (x2.5).

[Comment: Note that IPCC and others recommend that these are too high to avoid irreversible changes to significant elements of the global environment – ice caps, mountain snows, ecology, desertification etc – a point that is not mentioned here or in general discussions. These tipping points or bifurcations in regional climate appear to be of greater concern to European and US scientists and policy makers – a valid point made by the UK Embassy. I was reminded that one of the lead authors of the recent IPCC report is from CMA; I had the impression that he did not agree with everything in it.]

  There is a small mention of the significant change in the atmospheric ‘Walker’ circulation over the Pacific in the 1970’s that may have been associated with a drought in N China.

Different IPCC emission scenarios are considered about reaching these concentration levels. It is concluded that over China (not the global average over land and sea) the temperature will rise in the range 3 to 5 deg., but after stabilisation (at the above levels) the temperature would continue to rise by a smaller amount of 0.4 deg per 100years – which is still serious. These figures could well be an underestimate since the models do not allow for the release of methane from the melting permafrost and rapid loss of arctic sea ice.

    Average precipitation is predicted to rise by about 10%, which will ensure the major Eastern Rivers continue to flow even with loss of Tibetan plateau snow, which the report does not refer to. Its eventual melting over 300 (?) years, as Chinese experts on rivers have commented, will lead to the loss of the rivers emptying into the western deserts, with very adverse consequences for that region.

   The report also gives estimates of the reduction in temperature caused by aerosols, in the range 0.1 to 1 degree. This would imply that, if air pollution is reduced, the temperature rise over this century would be larger than the previous estimates?

  1. Policy discussions

These were held, in a very open spirit, with policy experts at Normal University as part of an EU-China seminar on risk and global system dynamics for policy, with Chinese, Russian and US nuclear fusion scientists at Prof Jiangang Li’s Academy of Science Institute for Plasma Physics at Hefei, and at CMA with Prof Xu Jianmin (XJ) and some of his younger technical staff – who are very interested in China’s climate policy. [XJ is also a member of the National People’s Congress, an expert on weather satellites and the technical member of the China team, which comes to meetings of international legislators organised by GLOBE (http://www.globe/].

Both groups emphasised that China’s policy over the next 40 years is to improve the efficiency of fossil fuel power generation (per unit of power produced), while increasing the total amount of power. This is China’s only significant target in relation to energy and climate change. They are not it appears committed in any way to agreeing to have policies based on limiting emissions so as not to exceed a target value for the global level of concentration. Even if China’s efficiency target is met, it is estimated that emissions will increase by a factor of 2 by 2050. If not, the emissions will increase by a factor of 3. The cost of this increase in efficiency is estimated as about equal to the whole of China’s GDP in 2006 (which implies a cost of significantly less than 2% per year over the next 40 years). XJ commented that the efficiency improvement will be achieved more readily if there is a substantial transfer to China  of technology for clean power and Carbon Capture and Storage. But there are difficulties for foreign companies to maintain ownership of IPR at the same time as helping the new technologies develop in China, as the UK embassy explained.

    During this period the GDP is expected to increase by a further factor of 8 (by comparison for western countries of a factor of 3?). The population will increase by 40 % and level out by 2050 at about 1.4bn. It was emphasised that the one child policy will continue, which is a major contribution to holding down the consumption of food and demand for electrical power.

     Other measures of conservation do not have the same emphasis as they do in the West. The Chinese comment that western countries have huge opportunities for energy saving through changes in power used in housing and buildings. In China most housing South of the Yangtze has no heating – which makes them very cold in winter! Energy in the form of methane is produced extensively in villages from individual biomass reactors using human, vegetable and animal waste. It was also explained that a further significant contribution to reducing GHGs, is the massive planting of trees which are not cut down by villagers because of their new access to biomass energy. Tree coverage is now back to the levels in the 1960s. These aspects need to be considered when assessing China’s net contribution to global GHG concentrations.

       Over the next 40 years various new non-fossil technologies are being introduced. But it is expected that their net contribution will be small; with renewable energy for electrical power at about 1% (though in Hefei almost every house has a solar water heater), and nuclear power rising to 10% at most.

           However by the end of the century, nuclear power may contribute so significantly that the current predictions of GHG emissions can be reduced. This planning scenario could be factored into current negotiations on national emissions, given that China has an exceptional track record in delivering on nuclear and other technology projects, and in sticking to international agreements over the past 10 years. For example in the post-Kyoto negotiations developed countries could agree with China that its future reductions will occur and then make their own reductions in emissions on the shorter time scale of 20-30 years. This could maintain global warming below the dangerous levels defined by the global geophysical and biological systems (eg Schellenhuber et al 2003-conference at Exeter).

       But a massive expansion of China’s nuclear energy programme to achieve its future objective would require more fuel than is available for conventional fission power plant, and more waste processing than can be accommodated. Prof Li and the China’s commercial nuclear industry are now planning a new technology demonstrator of a combined system using fission and current fusion technology to overcome these problems. It is planned for the next 10-15 years. Similar technological plans are being developed in the USA at the University of Texas and elsewhere.

         This development could change the future and thereby change the present!

         The confidence in China about its future is unparalleled in my experience. It is based on security that the state will provide, especially food. Risks associated with climate change, extreme climatic events or untried technologies are not central to discussions about the future of their country (say unlike the Netherlands), although following the earthquake in Szechuan in 2008 there is now more interest by central and regional governments.