China has been the victim of extreme weather this summer. Forest fires erupted in the Southwestern city of Chongqing in late August amid a weeks-long heatwave—the worst the country has faced in decades. Record low rainfall has driven an unprecedented drought along the Yangtze, China’s longest river. Then suddenly this week, the same Southwest region that’s been devastated by scorching temperatures and drought for most of the summer, saw more than 100,000 people evacuated due to flood risk.
Like elsewhere in the world, weather made worse by climate change has put pressure on China’s energy system. Some environmentalists worry this will further prolong the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter’s reliance on coal, which still makes up more than half of its energy mix.
South China Morning PostThe heat wave which struck China more than 70 days ago and left more than 990 million homeless, according to estimates. It affected 17 provinces from Southwestern Sichuan up to Zhejiang, Zhejiang, Jiangsu and coastal Jiangsu in the East. Drought has affected many provinces, including Anhui Jiangxi Jiangxi Hubei Hunan Chongqing and Sichuan since July.
Hydropower stations were shut down in Southwestern Sichuan province due to drought. This was where 80 percent of the country’s electricity is generated from hydropower. At the peak of the drought, Sichuan’s hydropower generation plummeted by more than 50%, according to an analysis for Carbon BriefLauri Myllyvirta (CREA) is the lead analyst for Helsinki’s Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air. But the power crunch hasn’t just impacted Sichuan. The province is the largest producer of hydropower in the country, accounting for 30% of China’s hydroelectric generation, according to Reuters, and other provinces rely on its energy supply. This includes Shanghai, Zhejiang, and Jiangsu—all of which are responsible for a significant portion of China’s industrial output.
In Wuhan Province of China, people swim at the crossroads between the Han-Yangtze rivers in the heat wave that hit August 10, 2022.
Officials ordered factories in Sichuan—including the plants of Toyota and the Chinese battery behemoth CATL—and some other provinces in central China to shut down completely or to limit production. In late August, the Bund—Shanghai’s iconic skyline area—went dark for a few nights to save power.
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The much needed rainfall in parts of Sichuan this week, however, won’t solve China’s energy woes. “Much of China’s hydropower capacity is built with very small or even no reservoirs, so the effect of rainfall is dramatic but not long-lasting,” says Myllyvirta, of CREA, which has been analyzing China’s energy situation. “The droughts will continue to affect hydropower output in the next few months, due to low water levels in reservoirs.”
This hydropower shortage has driven the perception among some people and officials in China that renewable energy sources, including hydropower, are not reliable, according to Li Shuo of Greenpeace East Asia, adding fuel to the argument that the country needs more baseload power, especially from coal—a fossil fuel which helps drive extreme climate impacts like drought.
Myllyvirta, an email correspondent for TIME, says that in response to energy shortages, the coal power production increased by approximately 6 percent in July. According to CNN data, power plants in the United States burned 15 percent more thermal coal per day during the first week of August than they did a year ago.
Coal production already hit record levels in 2021, following a country-wide energy crisis late in the year, the country’s worst in a decade. The combination of high fuel costs and increased demand, the shortage in coal and attempts to implement new emission reduction targets drove it. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, China produced 2.19 billion tonnes of coal in January-June to prevent similar events. This is an increase of 11% over last year. In June, as temperatures and electricity use skyrocketed, China’s premier Li Keqiang called for coal production to be ramped up to avoid mass blackouts.
“Last year really kind of changed the philosophy of China’s energy planning,” says Cosimo Ries, an analyst and energy expert at the consulting agency Trivium China. The lesson the country took away from it was “that energy security in the short term is more important than decarbonization.”
On August 23, 2022 at Chongqing (China), smoke rises from Banan district as a result of a wildfire.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has stressed energy security more than ever, and he will be seeking a record-breaking third term at the Chinese Communist Party meeting next month.
Of course, China isn’t alone in prioritizing energy security over decarbonization. The benchmark coal price reached new heights this year due to global competition. Last month, Germany began reactivating coal-fired power plants—originally scheduled to be phased out to meet climate goals—as it weans itself off Russian energy sources. That’s despite a promise to eliminate coal use by 2030. Due to the spike in energy demand this summer due to heat waves, India announced that its old coal mines would soon be reopened. The output also increased.
It remains unclear if, or how, China’s current increase in coal production and consumption will have knock-on impacts on its climate targets. Beijing pledged to reduce its carbon emissions by 2030 and its coal consumption starting in 2026. It also promised to be carbon neutralized by 2060. China’s increase in coal output over the past year, however, hasn’t translated into a similar increase in coal use. According to his analysis, Carbon Brief, Myllyvirta found that China’s coal-fired power generation declined by 4% year-on-year in the first half of 2022, and China’s carbon emissions fell by a record 8% in the second quarter of this year. “The more salient trends are the real estate slump, which is hitting industrial electricity demand, and strong growth in wind, solar, and nuclear power generation,” he tells TIME.
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But Myllyvirta adds that the response to the most recent shortage will most likely include building new coal power plants in the parts of China impacted by recent events, as well as renewed efforts to improve the grid so that it “isn’t as reliant on building dedicated coal capacity in every single province to keep the lights on.”
Ries acknowledges the recent developments may have a negative impact on China’s transition to coal-fired power. “While most of China’s top coal-fired utilities are not really building that much capacity anymore—they’re building renewables very aggressively, they’re trying to transition their whole portfolio—I think they’ll also realize that this can’t happen too quickly because of the inherent risks that come with it.”
Greenpeace Li states that China may feel the effects of climate change and should be encouraged to move forward. “China is indeed not immune from climate impacts,” he says. Li says that the extreme weather events that have occurred in recent years, including deadly floods and this summer’s drought, may impact public opinion about climate action. “Because of the severity of the heat wave this summer, I think there is kind of a change in perception slowly happening among the Chinese public,” he says. “I think it’s slowly triggering a national awakening.”
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