Can Canada Help China Weather Climate Change?


The coastal Chinese city of Shanghai, whose name literally means “above the sea,” has been the focal point of emotionally charged narratives about the security threat of climate change. Other Chinese cities—including the densely populated metropolises of Guangzhou and Shenzhen—are often cited as most “vulnerable” to the effects of climate change.

In a 2014 survey of 50 of the world’s largest cities, London-based property corporation Grosvenor ranks Shanghai and Guangzhou among the world’s least climate resilient cities. A city’s climate resilience, as defined by Grosvenor, is based on the interplay of two elements: vulnerability to the effects of climate change and the adaptive mechanisms in place to mitigate them.

Meanwhile, the world’s top three resilient cities are all found in Canada. That means Canadian cities have exactly what Chinese cities need: experience and expertise in making themselves resilient to the impacts of climate change.

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Toronto, topping the Grosvenor list, has a robust climate change adaptation strategy that encompasses the use of a localized climate change risk assessment tool and extreme weather infrastructural investment. Vancouver, located in a low-lying region on Canada’s West coast, has been addressing climate change and sustainability since the late 1990s when it joined Partners for Climate Protection, a national network of Canadian municipal governments that have committed to reducing greenhouse gases. Calgary, rounding out the top three, is known for its expertise in water management, especially given its location in one of Canada’s driest regions.

While the two countries have collaborated via high-level forums like the Canada-China Climate Change Working Group and the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development, bilateral cooperation on climate resilience development on the municipal level has been limited to date. There is much potential to be tapped.

Canadian cities can take notes from more advanced initiatives between German and Chinese cities on sustainable urban development. The German mayors of Duisburg and Bonn have reached out to their counterparts in Wuhan and Chengdu, respectively, to support implementation of low-carbon development projects, share experiences and to learn from innovative approaches in the Chinese cities. Since early 2013, the Bonn-Chengdu Partnership for Sustainable Low-Carbon Development has been working extensively on developments via reciprocal visits of government delegations and expert groups.

Just two weeks ago, as one result of the first-ever U.S.-China Climate Leaders Summit, Los Angeles and Beijing arranged to cooperate in low-carbon urban planning and transportation though joint workshops, technology exchanges and research projects.

By 2030, 70 percent of Chinese are expected to live in urban areas. This means that China has an urgent need to take action now to protect its cities from climate change. While there are inevitable differences in governance structures, Chinese cities can still glean valuable lessons from their Canadian counterparts. Shenyang, for instance, located in one of China’s most water-deprived provinces, can learn from Calgary.

Canada also has much to gain from greater collaboration. Beyond developing capacity for investment in one of the world’s most dynamic regions, this provides it an important opportunity to reinvigorate its international image and “get serious” about its relationship with China.

While it remains uncertain whether China’s climate change efforts in the international arena will garner any fruit, there is no doubt that its leaders—both local and national—are increasingly willing to take on greater commitments. That means there’s an opportunity for cities with experience and expertise—like Canada’s cities—to reach out to partners in China, to the benefit of both sides.

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