As China Boomed, It Didn’t Take Climate Change Into Account. Now It Must.
and breakneck growth over the last four decades erected soaring cities where there had been hamlets and farmland. The cities lured factories, and the factories lured workers. The boom lifted hundreds of millions of people out of the poverty and rural hardship they once faced. Now those cities face the daunting new challenge of adapting , a possibility that few gave much thought to when the country began its extraordinary economic transformation. s pell-mell, brisk urbanization has in some ways made the challenge harder to face. No one weather event can be linked to , but that Zhengzhou and other cities in central China last week, killing at least 69 as of Monday, reflects a of extreme weather that has seen recently in Germany and Belgium, and severe heat and . The , which engulfed subway lines, washed away roads and cut off villages, also highlights the environmental vulnerabilities that accompanied the countrys economic boom and could yet undermine it. China has always had floods, but as Kong Feng, then a public policy professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, in 2019, the flooding of cities across China in recent years is a general manifestation of urban problems in the country. The vast expansion of roads, subways and railways in cities that swelled almost overnight meant there were fewer places where rain could safely be absorbed disrupting what scientists call the natural hydrological cycle. , a professor of geology with the University of Nottingham in Ningbo in eastern China, said the countrys cities and with populations of more than a million modernized at a time when Chinese leaders made climate resiliency less of a priority than economic growth. If they had a chance to build a city again, or to plan one, I think they would agree to make it more balanced, said Mr. Chan, who is also a visiting fellow at the Water@Leeds Research Institute of the University of Leeds. China has already taken some steps to begin to address climate change. Xi Jinping is the countrys first leader to make the issue a national priority. As early as 2013, Mr. Xi promised to build an ecological civilization in China. We must maintain harmony between man and nature and pursue sustainable development, he said in a in Geneva in 2013. The country has in its cities over the past two decades. It introduced a pilot program to create sponge cities, including Zhengzhou, that better absorb rainfall. Last year, Mr. Xi pledged to speed up reductions in emissions and reach carbon neutrality by 2060. It was in policy and may prove to be one in practice, as well. The question is whether it is too late. Even if countries like China and the United States rapidly cut greenhouse gases, the warming from those already emitted is likely to have long-lasting consequences. Rising sea levels now threaten Chinas , while increasingly severe storms will batter inland cities that, like Zhengzhou, are sinking under the weight of development that was hastily planned, with buildings and infrastructure that were sometimes shoddily constructed. Even Beijing, which was hit by flash flood in 2012 that left 79 dead, still does not have the drainage system needed to siphon away rainfall from a major storm, despite the capitals glittering architectural landmarks signifying Chinas rising status. In Zhengzhou, officials described the torrential rains that fell last week as a once-in-a-millennium storm that no amount of planning could have prevented. Even so, people have asked why the citys flooded, trapping passengers as water steadily rose, and why under the citys third ring road flooded so rapidly that people in cars had little time to escape. The worsening impact of climate change could pose a challenge to the ruling Communist Party, given that political power in China has long been associated with . A public groundswell several years ago about toxic air pollution in Beijing and other cities ultimately forced the government . As we have more and more events like what has happened over the last few days, I do think there will be more national realization of the impact of climate change and more reflection on what we should do about it, said Li Shuo, a climate analyst with Greenpeace in China. Chinas urbanization has in some ways made the adjustment easier. It has relocated millions of people from countryside villages that had far fewer defenses against recurring floods. That is why the toll of recent floods has been in the hundreds and thousands, not in the millions, as some of the were. The experience of Zhengzhou, though, underscores the extent of the challenges that lie ahead and the limits of easy solutions. Once a mere crossroads south of a bend in the Yellow River, the city has expanded exponentially since Chinas economic reforms began more than 40 years ago. Today, skyscrapers and apartment towers stretch into the distance. The citys population has doubled since 2001, . Zhengzhou floods so frequently that residents mordantly joke about it. No need to envy those cities where you can view the sea, read one online comment that spread during a flood in 2011, according to a . Today we welcome you to view the sea in Zhengzhou. In 2016, the city was one of 16 chosen for a pilot program to expand green space to mitigate flooding the sponge city concept. The idea, not unlike what planners in the United States call low-impact development, is to channel water away from dense urban spaces into parks and lakes, where it can be absorbed or even recycled. Yu Kongjian, the dean of the School of Landscape Architecture at Peking University, is with popularizing the idea in China. He said in a telephone interview that in its rapid development since the 1980s, China had turned to designs from the West that were ill-suited for the extremes that the countrys climate was already experiencing. Cities were covered in cement, colonized, as he put it, by gray infrastructure. China, in his view, needs to revive ancient wisdom and upgrade it, setting aside natural spaces for water and greenery the way ancient farmers once did. Under the program, Zhengzhou has built more than 3,000 miles of new drainage, eliminated 125 flood-prone areas and created hundreds of acres of new green spaces, according to an in Zhengzhou Daily, a state-owned newspaper. One such space is Diehu Park, or Butterfly Lake Park, where weeping willows and camphor trees surround an artificial lake. It opened only last October. It, too, was inundated last week. Sponges absorb water slowly, not fast, Dai Chuanying, a maintenance worker at the park, said on Friday. If theres too much water, the sponge cannot absorb all of it. Even before this past weeks flooding, some had questioned the concept. After the city saw flooding in 2019, the China Youth Daily, a party-run newspaper, on the projects had not resulted in significant improvements. Others noted that sponge cities were not a panacea. They were never intended for torrential rain like that in Zhengzhou on July 20, when eight inches of rain fell in one hour. Although the sponge city initiative is an excellent sustainable development approach for stormwater management, it is still debatable whether it can be regarded as the complete solution to flood risk management in a changing climate, said Konstantinos Papadikis, dean of the School of Design at Xian Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou. The factories that have driven Chinas growth also pumped out more and more of the gases that contribute to climate change, while also badly polluting the air. Like countries everywhere, China now faces the tasks of reducing emissions and preparing for the effects of global warming that increasingly seem unavoidable. Mr. Chan, the professor, said that in China the issue of climate change has not been as politically polarizing as in, for example, the United States. That could make it easier to build public support for the changes local and national governments have to make, many of which will be costly. I know for cities, the questions of land use are expensive, but were talking about climate change, he said. Were talking about future development for the next generation or the next, next generation. Li You contributed research. An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in China. It is in Suzhou, not Xi'an. An earlier version of this article referred imprecisely to the extent to which a single weather event can be attributed to climate change. While gauging such a link requires thorough analysis, scientists are now able to do so with a high degree of certainty in many cases. How we handle corrections is the Beijing bureau chief for The New York Times. He joined The Times in 1989 and has previously worked as a correspondent in Moscow, Baghdad and Washington. He is the author of The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2015. is the Shanghai bureau chief. He previously served as Hong Kong bureau chief, Detroit bureau chief, Washington correspondent covering international trade and then the U.S. economy, telecommunications reporter in New York and airlines reporter. is chief China correspondent and has lived in China for most of the past 30 years after growing up in Sydney, Australia. Before joining The Times in 2012, he was a correspondent in Beijing for Reuters.