Interview: Water and energy challenges mount in China

Dr. Jintao Xu, Professor of Natural Resource Economics, National School of Development, Peking University and GAIN Council of Scientific Advisors member, talks about the key adaptation challenges facing China and how the GAIN Index highlights his country’s progress building greater resiliency.

What are the greatest adaptation challenges for China?

I see two equally important areas that pose adaptation challenges for China. First, China has always been a water scarce country with a couple-thousand years’ history of battling water problems — sometimes flooding, sometimes drought. 

Another area is energy. China is an energy scarce country too. All of our existing energy storage is very limited and increasingly relies on international markets. This poses an energy security issue to China.

According to the GAIN Index, China has decreased its vulnerability and slightly improved its readiness throughout the last 15 years. Do you see this trend improving? What policy changes should China undertake to continue progress?

The improved situation is mostly attributable to economic growth. So when living standards are higher and society is richer, you certainly have more capacity to adapt. But we still have a lot of challenges. So the country has to find a way, especially the private sector, to improve energy efficiency and water efficiency.

How is entrepreneurship within China contributing to decreasing vulnerability?

For the last three decades with the economic reforms and opening [economic] policy, the private sector has become the main force of the Chinese economy. There are a lot of private sector entrepreneurs who are proactive and looking at business opportunities to invest in alternative energy; they anticipate a policy change related to climate change.

A lot of private sector leaders are very active and are pushing the government to change policies so that the whole economy is more adaptive to new environmental and international markets. This can be seen from the development of windpower, solar power and energy. We are becoming a major exporter of these technologies already. But we still have problems. The renewable energy sector in China is not making good money. There is some government facilitation in this sector; but we probably need stronger government commitment.

How do you see climate policy developing throughout the coming decades and what will China’s role be in making progress on climate change?

The Chinese government is becoming increasingly open [on climate change]. Although the government is lagging behind in making a substantial commitment in climate change policy, the government, academics and society in general are very curious about the scientific evidence about climate change. They are also very interested in learning what other countries are doing and what are suggestions and recommendations that China can adopt in order to achieve energy efficiency readiness for climate change. 

When did you become interested in adaptation? Please describe your academic background and current work.

I am a natural resource economic by training so I work on environment issues mostly in rural China as well as some urban issues, including industry pollution issues. I have also participated in formal mechanisms such as the task force for agriculture, environment, climate adaptation and energy. So I have been dealing with the adaptation issue, especially in agriculture and in Northern China for a while.