AN UNPRECEDENTED HEATWAVE AND LONG PERIODS OF LOW RAINFALL LED TO WILDFIRE IN CHONGQING. PHOTO: VCG VIA GETTY IMAGES​
AN UNPRECEDENTED HEATWAVE AND LONG PERIODS OF LOW RAINFALL LED TO WILDFIRE IN CHONGQING. PHOTO: VCG VIA GETTY IMAGES

Why Climate Change Is Forcing China to Burn More Coal

As the world’s biggest emitter, China’s transition to clean energy is more urgent than ever. Extreme weather is making it more difficult.

Chongqing, a metropolis of 31 million in southwestern China, isn’t called a furnace city for nothing. A combo of high heat and humidity makes every summer unbearable. But the recent few months weren’t like anything its residents have experienced in the past.

With temperatures reaching 45°C, the streets were so hot the pavement melted the soles of shoes. Scorching-hot water came out of the cold faucet. “It’s like you’re living in a steamer or constantly standing in front of an exhaust pipe,” said Hong Wen, a car salesman who had been cranking up the air conditioner to cope with the heat, in turn driving up energy demand—and emissions—in the coal-reliant country.

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The same dilemma is playing out on a macro level.

Like many other countries in the world, China, particularly the Sichuan province, saw temperatures hit new heights this summer, drawing attention to the climate emergency. But as the hottest and third-driest August on record dried up the Yangtze basin, snarling hydropower when it was most needed, the province found that it could only turn to coal to avoid a power crisis.

The episode highlighted Beijing’s precarious balance between its energy security and its climate commitments. As the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, China has pledged to wean off coal and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. But while the task of transitioning to clean energy is more urgent than ever, extreme weather has also made it even more difficult. 

“The government is in a bit of a conundrum. They either need to find a way to create massive amounts of storage during off peak hours to help keep them going during the high peak, or they have to be more reliant on coal and gas,” said Edwin Schmitt, an environmental anthropologist at Arizona State University. “That’s a catch-22, because the coal and gas are causing climate change in the first place.”  

PARTS OF YANGTZE BASIN DRIED UP DURING AN UNPRECEDENTED HEATWAVE THIS SUMMER. PHOTO: STR/AFP

PARTS OF YANGTZE BASIN DRIED UP DURING AN UNPRECEDENTED HEATWAVE THIS SUMMER. PHOTO: STR/AFP

China logged the hottest August since records began in 1961, after a punishing heat streak struck a large swathe of southern China for more than 75 consecutive days. The average temperature nationwide was 22.4°C last month, exceeding the seasonal norm by 1.2°C, while some 267 weather stations across the country matched or broke temperature records, the state broadcaster CCTV reported last week.

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The intense heatwave is unparalleled even by global standards. “The combination of length, intensity and area is totally unprecedented in world climatic history,” Maximiliano Herrera, a climatologist who tracks extreme weather globally, told VICE World News. 

To make matters worse, the heat coincided with a severe drought that saw the Yangtze basin—the third-longest river in the world—dip to record lows, while parts of it dried up entirely. Rainfall in the area fell by 45 percent compared to the seasonal norm, triggering wildfires that took weeks to put out even with the help of cloud-seeding planes to induce rain.

The heat wave and drought have had a cascading effect on the economy, particularly the agricultural sector, as farmers struggled to irrigate their plants and saw their crops perish under the baking temperatures. On Douyin, China’s version of TikTok, a fisherman living beside the Dongting Lake, the country’s second-largest freshwater lake, pointed at the weeds that have grown over the exposed lakebed. “I lived here for five decades. I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said in the clip.

Most residents thought the worst was over when torrential rains lowered the temperatures at the end of August, but downpours led to floods that swept away cars and displaced more than 190,000 residents in Sichuan province. They had barely heaved a sigh of relief, when another disaster struck—a 6.8 magnitude earthquake killed 92 and left more than 250 injured last week.

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While the quake had nothing to do with climate change, the seemingly endless string of extreme weather events raised alarm among the top level of the Chinese government. “This is a warning for us, reminding us to have a deeper understanding of climate change and improve our ability to adapt to it in all respects,” Zhang Daquan, a senior official at China’s National Climate Center recently said, according to the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece People’s Daily

CROPS WITHERED THE SCORCHING HEAT. PHOTO: NOEL CELIS/AFP

CROPS WITHERED THE SCORCHING HEAT, DEALING A HEAVY BLOW TO THE AGRICULTURAL SECTOR. HOTO: NOEL CELIS/AFP

For Sichuan, in particular, the biggest concern was ensuring regular power supply.

The province’s power supply is vulnerable to droughts, as it relies on dams for 80 percent of its electricity. While demand surged as millions of households cranked up their air conditioners, hydropower output dwindled as water levels receded. The region, which leads the country in terms of hydropower generation, saw its capacity cut by half this summer, according to the State Grid Sichuan Electric Power Company.

“This period of time is generally the rainy season, where a lot of the hydropower plants are able to run at close to full capacity,” said Schmitt of Arizona State University. “Instead, the reservoirs are dry and most of the floodplains are pretty barren.”

To alleviate the power crunch, the Sichuan provincial government took drastic action. The manufacturing and lithium mining hub suspended factories in 19 cities to prioritize residential use. Subways ran without lights and malls switched off billboards, while companies placed huge chunks of ice in offices to keep their staff cool. Even so, some cities had to impose power rationing measures, sending residents to seek relief in supermarkets, wartime bunkers, and ancient caves.

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Most crucially, the region fired up thermal plants to make up for the shortfall, shipping in a historic amount of coal from other parts of the country. Coastal regions in the east, which usually import surplus electricity from Sichuan, also felt the pain and fell back on their stockpiles of coal to keep the cities running. 

While the torrential rain provided temporary relief, analysts see more trouble ahead. 

“The key hydropower reservoirs are only at 30 percent of their usual levels. And if these reservoirs don’t fill up in time, the winter could be very worrying, because that’s usually when there’s very little rain,” said Cosimo Ries, an analyst and energy expert at the consulting agency Trivium China. “We might very well see a return of these power crises.”

The power shortage also prompted bigger questions about China’s green ambitions. 

Renewable energy sources are key to Beijing’s goals of achieving peak emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060, a pledge Chinese President Xi Jinping announced to the United Nations General Assembly in 2020. The efforts to decarbonize, however, have been set back by other domestic policy goals, including economic growth as well as food and energy security. 

A failure to balance these conflicting aims already led to the largest blackout in a decade last year, wreaking havoc across northern provinces. Power cuts left residents freezing in their homes and pulled factories to a halt. In the northeastern city of Shenyang, even traffic lights stopped working, throwing roads into chaos. 

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Xi has since vowed not to let major incidents such as the power crisis happen again and approved a number of new coal-fired plants to stave off power shortage. Europe has similarly turned back to coal as Russia cut gas supplies in retaliation to sanctions stemming from its invasion of Ukraine.

And China’s shifting priorities have global consequences, as it is responsible for 27 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases, more than all other developed countries combined. When Chinese coal mines expanded their capacity to meet energy demand earlier this year, they emitted a cloud of methane—a potent greenhouse gas that is a key driver of climate change—so massive that it could be seen from space.

There is no sign that China is backtracking on its climate goals.

As other countries reconsider the reliability of hydropower in light of the recent droughts, China continues to build ambitious new dams, using AI technology and 3D printing. It is also constructing the world’s largest solar-powered “green hydrogen” factory, which is set to reduce carbon emissions by 485,000 tons a year when it is put into operation in June.

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Besides diversifying its energy mix, China is also working to optimize the grid and relax red tape on interregional transmission. In addition, it has stepped up investment in battery storage to save surplus energy more efficiently.

A COAL-FIRED PLANT IN SHANGHAI. PHOTO: HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP

A COAL-FIRED PLANT IN SHANGHAI. PHOTO: HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP

But the growing frequency of extreme weather only creates more uncertainty for this transition. Besides sapping hydropower, droughts also deal a blow on crop yields, forcing Chinese authorities to rethink how much agricultural land it could cede to wind turbines and solar panels. While China is still committed to peaking before 2030, environmental groups are concerned the peak level could be much higher than anticipated. 

The grand plan is to replace coal entirely with sustainable alternatives, but that reality is still decades away. “In the short term, it’s difficult for wind and solar to make up a very meaningful part of China’s energy mix. And until then, coal is basically the only option,” Ries of Trivium China said. 

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