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Just transition for carbon neutrality and climate resilience in Tibetan Plateau

Just transition for carbon neutrality and climate resilience in Tibetan Plateau

Wei Jiang

This March, Dr. Wei Jiang from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences started her 6-month visiting fellowship at York and EUC work-study student, Lorraine Wong, interviews her on her plans for engagement and research at the Faculty.

Q. Why did you decide to pursue a visiting scholarship at York University?

The significance not only lies in the visiting scholarship itself , but it also offers a unique opportunity for me to enrich and diversify my experiences. Although I have been to various Asian countries, EU member states, and the US for academic purposes, I have not had the chance to visit Canada until now. It is noteworthy that York University and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) have a longstanding relationship. Years ago, my host supervisor Professor Philip Kelly, led a York delegation to CASS while he was the Director of the York Centre for Asian Research. Subsequently, a colleague from CASS visited York the following year and now it is my chance to be here as a visiting scholar. I am deeply grateful to York University faculty and staff for their institutional support.

York University is also renowned for its commitment to diversity and its dedication to shaping a better future. This ethos resonates deeply with me as it aligns perfectly with my own aspirations and academic work as well as my professional practice in my own country. I am delighted to be part of this vibrant community of changemakers, where I can contribute to creating a brighter future. Off course, I am eager to foster and strengthen the amicable relationship between CASS and York University during my time here as a visiting scholar.

In 2015, CASS and YCAR jointly held a youth, diversity and social development workshop to strengthen their academic connection and engagement.

Q. Can you expound on the details of your research project?

China has been addressing significant efforts on low carbon development. As you may have noticed, I put forward an ambitious goal known as “2060” target, that is, it should meet the carbon peak by the year 2030 and carbon neutrality by the year 2060, which is hard to achieve. However great efforts have come into effect. Statistics show that till the end of 2022, the renewable energy electricity production had reached a proportion of 31.6%, but in 2010 when China’s first batch of low-carbon pilot city was issued, it was only 19.05%.

My research project experienced a process of narrowing. First, I pursued China and Germany's climate policy, then focused on China’s low carbon cities, and gradually focused on China’s minority areas (as most of these areas are more vulnerable to climate change), especially the Tibetan Plateau, including the role of Indigenous knowledge in climate change mitigation and adaptation. Regarding the low carbon cities, I have some articles that may be of some interest. For the moment, what I do most in my research involves two aspects: one is about policy evaluation and recommendations based on field investigation; and the other is to promote the renewable energy or pilot it as part of the practice. The goal is to push forward the low-carbon or zero-carbon development (in some places with proper conditions) especially in ethnic minority areas.

With the field investigation, I can apply case studies and take a close look at best practices, including those cases or examples highlighting lessons learned and replicability. This will help me to create a comprehensive and insightful analysis of climate change mitigation in China's ethnic minority areas and provide policy recommendations for government agencies, and stakeholders to enhance climate resilience and sustainable development practices among ethnic minority groups.

Q. What are the biggest challenges in your research work?

The biggest ones are language and the altitude sickness. Applying Indigenous knowledge in climate change mitigation and adaptation as well as renewable energy promotion in the local community, I plan to do an in-depth interview and discuss with the local community using their language as a necessary pre-condition. However I have only grasped a few Tibetan expressions. This is one of the biggest challenges or hurdles that I am encountering that I think is urgent for me to learn the Tibetan local language. Regarding altitude sickness, most of the people who come from lower elevations will encounter such a problem and can occasionally be fatal. This is another difficulty that I may encounter.

Q. Why is the Tibetan Plateau most vulnerable to global climate change?

Old town of Gyantse and surrounding fields (Wikimedia photo by Antoine Taveneaux.

There are several key factors that make it one of the most vulnerable areas to global climate change:

(1) High Altitude: The Tibetan Plateau is often referred to as the "roof of the world" because of its high altitude, with an average elevation of over 4,500 meters. Higher altitudes are more sensitive to climate change, experiencing amplified warming compared to lower elevations. This can lead to significant impacts on the region's ecosystems and water resources.

(2) Glacial Retreat and Permafrost Degradation: The plateau is home to thousands of glaciers that serve as a vital source of freshwater for major rivers in Asia. However, these glaciers are rapidly retreating due to rising temperatures, leading to reduced water availability in downstream areas during crucial times like the dry season. On the other problem of permafrost degradation, the plateau has extensive permafrost areas that are vulnerable to thawing under warmer conditions. Permafrost degradation can lead to land instability, increased greenhouse gas emissions (due to the release of trapped organic matter), and changes in local ecosystems.

(3) Water Resource: The Tibetan Plateau plays a crucial role in the hydrological cycle of Asia, serving as the source of major rivers such as the Yangtze, Yellow, Mekong, and Indus. Changes in precipitation patterns, glacial melt, and permafrost degradation can disrupt water availability, impacting ecosystems, agriculture, and human populations downstream.

(4) Biodiversity Hotspot: Despite its harsh environment, the Tibetan Plateau is rich in biodiversity, with unique species adapted to extreme conditions. Climate change threatens these species by altering habitats, shifting vegetation zones, and increasing the frequency of extreme weather events.

The Tibetan Plateau lies between the Himalayan range to the south and the Taklamakan Desert to the north. (Composite Himalaya image from Wikimedia Commons uploaded by Dbachman).

(5) Socioeconomic Impacts: The vulnerability of the Tibetan Plateau to climate change has significant socioeconomic implications for millions of people who depend on its resources for their livelihoods - Xizang 3.5 million and Qinghai nearly 6 million. Changes in water availability, land productivity, and ecosystem services can affect agriculture, pastoralism, and tourism, leading to challenges for local communities. All the above factors combined make the Tibetan Plateau a focal point for climate change research and conservation efforts, highlighting the urgent need for mitigation and adaptation strategies. Off course, this also inspired my research motivation.

Q. What can we do towards carbon neutrality and climate resilience?

To achieve carbon neutrality and enhance climate resilience in Tibetan Plateau, based on my investigation and case study, it requires a multidimensional approach which may integrate environmental conservation, sustainable development, and community engagement, involving both technological and non-technological factors, but the core of the approach is the energy transition from fossil to renewable or zero carbon energies.

Here I like to adopt the approaches from my pilot city which may represent many of the cities that go through the journey to carbon neutrality and climate resilience. Its main approaches are as follows:

At the technological dimension

Promote renewable energy development: These include solar, wind, and hydropower, investing in infrastructure and technology to harness these clean energy sources, reducing reliance on fossil fuels and lowering carbon emissions. Here it should be pointed out that we are trying to integrate different types of renewables in order to enhance the resilience to extreme weather.

Improve infrastructure for climate-resiliency: These include investing in climate-resilient infrastructures that can withstand extreme weather events such as floods, droughts, and landslides as well as designing infrastructures with considerations for changing climate conditions to ensure long-term resilience and reduce vulnerability.

Improve water resource management: These include implementing effective water resource management strategies to ensure sustainable use of freshwater resources on the plateau. Other approaches include watershed protection, water conservation measures, and equitable distribution of water resources among different sectors and communities.

Promote afforestation and reforestation to restore degraded ecosystems in applicable or suitable places: These include enhancing carbon sequestration and improving biodiversity as well as protecting and expanding forested areas to help mitigate soil erosion, regulate water cycles, and provide habitat for wildlife.

At the non-technological dimension

Low carbon capacity or zero carbon community building: These include engaging local communities, Indigenous peoples, and stakeholders in decision-making processes related to climate change adaptation and mitigation as well as providing training, education, and resources to build local capacity in sustainable practices, disaster preparedness, and natural resource management.

Regional collaboration based on their differentiation of resource endowments: By adopting these strategies and fostering a holistic approach that integrates environmental conservation, sustainable development, and community resilience, progress towards carbon neutrality and climate resilience in the Tibetan Plateau can be achieved while safeguarding its unique ecosystems and supporting local livelihoods.

Q. What other topics are you most passionate about researching in the future?

I will always remain passionate in studying climate change and sustainable development especially in ethnic minority areas. Not only is the Tibetan Plateau region of significant ecological, hydrological importance, making it a focal point for climate resilience efforts, but also many my relatives, supervisors and friends are from the area or have passion in its place. Hence, I also have a desire to contribute to the protection and conservation of this unique and sensitive ecosystem. The other topics that are also very closely linked with climate change include the study of how religious psychology and behaviors and Indigenous knowledge matter to climate change mitigation and adaptation; how to improve the just transition in the journey to carbon neutrality; and as a practitioner, I would also like to promote Independent-Microgrid Zero-Carbon program that may suit many remote ethnic minority areas and support local energy demand.