An unprecedented heat wave in China this summer has dried up rivers, withered crops and ignited forest fires. It has grounded ships, created hydropower shortages and forced major cities to dim their lights. Receding waters have exposed long-submerged ancient bridges and Buddhist statues.

Among the many stunning images is a specimen left in the mud flats around Poyang Lake, normally the largest freshwater body in the country, which has shrunk by more than two-thirds. Chinese media dubbed the branch-like patterns carved by flowing water the “Earth Tree” and warned of a dangerous future for the lake’s condition due to extreme weather.

At 73 days and counting, the heat wave has easily surpassed China’s 2013 record of 62 days. All-time highs are being broken, often only to be broken again a few days later. “This heat wave surpasses anything seen before around the world,” Tweet Climate Historian Maximilian Herrera.

China shuts down factories, rations electricity as heat wave wreaks havoc on economy

Numerous fires have started in the past week amid high heat and drought, particularly in central parts of the country near Chongqing, a city on the banks of the Yangtze River. Temperatures in the city have dipped as low as 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 Celsius) in recent days. Minimum record per day In August.

Among the most recent all-time records: Sichuan Province reached 111.2F (44C) on wednesday; A week ago, Bebei in Chongqing province recorded 113F (45C), the highest temperature ever recorded in China outside the Xinjiang desert.

“The worst-affected area includes many built-up areas of China, which has a major impact on society,” Vicky Thompson, a climate scientist at the University of Bristol in England, wrote in an email.

Power shortages also occur in regions that rely on a vast network of electricity-generating dams and reservoirs as the Chinese government debates how – and how fast – to transition from coal-based power to renewable sources.

Cuts in hydropower, which accounted for about 15 percent of China’s total energy supply last year, have raised government concerns about power generation to keep pace with rising consumption — a boon for coal-fired power companies that generate about 60 percent of electricity. .

President Xi Jinping’s plan to peak China’s carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 involves a massive rollout of wind and solar power. But the government has also said that coal – a leading contributor to global greenhouse gases – will remain the mainstay of national energy production in the near term.

As the Yangtze River has dried up, China has been affected by drought and floods

The power shortage presents a major opportunity for China’s fossil-fuel giants to secure their place in the country’s rapidly evolving energy infrastructure, said Philip Andrews-Speed, a senior fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Institute of Energy Studies.

“After this crisis, the coal lobby will say, ‘This is why you have to have more coal mines and more coal-fired power plants,'” he said. “Just like in Europe, the main thing is to keep the lights on and the heating and air conditioning on. That is the short-term priority.”

After Sichuan’s hydropower output fell to less than half its normal level, the province’s 67 coal-fired power plants are “firing on all cylinders” to generate as much electricity as possible as part of an emergency response to the shortage, Chinese state media said on Tuesday.

Long before China was a leading producer and installer of solar and wind power, it prioritized expanded hydropower generation with megaprojects like the Three Gorges Dam, as well as building hundreds of small generators along China’s major rivers and their tributaries.

The scale of this investment means that parts of southwestern China rely on hydropower for 80 percent of their electricity, transferring the excess power to eastern provinces. Energy-intensive industries have flocked to provinces like Sichuan to take advantage of the cheap, abundant, and renewable energy produced by local dams.

Power production from the generally humid Southwest is likely to decrease in future years It can reduce the region’s dependence on hydropower as a carbon-free source. Frequent droughts make hydropower an uncertain bet, Andrews-Speed ​​said.

Summer floods and heat waves in China fuel plans for a changing climate

Sichuan’s heavy reliance on hydropower means it is difficult to make up for shortfalls in other energy sources when needed, Lin Boqiang, dean of the China Institute for Energy Policy Studies at Xiamen University, wrote in an article.

“If climate change increases the frequency of extreme weather events, governments should proactively take responsive measures to diversify the energy mix and improve the electricity grid,” he said.

Concerns about the reliability of hydropower are a sharp reversal from earlier in the summer, when heavy rains filled Chinese reservoirs and boosted hydropower generation.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has added to China’s long-standing concerns about energy security, as turmoil in global energy markets has fueled it. After a power shortage late last year, the Chinese government responded by ordering coal mines to ramp up production. As the rest of the world shies away from Russian oil and coal, China has imported both at record levels.

Beijing’s continued embrace of fossil fuels has drawn criticism from climate change activists that the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases is failing to move away from coal enough to meet international targets to keep global average temperature rises to within 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Preindustrial level.

Part of the problem for Chinese state planners is that China’s per capita energy consumption is less than half that of many industrialized nations, including the United States, and China’s total primary energy consumption is unlikely to peak for another decade.

Yet the frequency of extreme weather events in recent years has drawn more attention to the impact of climate change in China. Although Beijing has recognized the need to reduce global warming for many years, public discussion of the issue was limited until a few years ago.

As climate change moves China’s geopolitical agenda, Beijing’s desire to be seen as a global leader on the issue, the dramatic scenes of flash flooding in central China’s Henan province last summer – and the more than 300 deaths it caused – helped raise awareness. .

The study found that heat waves in China are increasing in intensity and duration, with human-induced climate change increasing hotter nighttime temperatures. This increase has been observed in urban and rural areas. Heat waves are also starting earlier and ending later.

And this is just the beginning.

“Over the last century we’ve seen heat waves get hotter and we know this is due to climate change. We know these types of events are happening more and more — but this year’s events, the Northern Hemisphere heat waves, are shocking,” Thompson wrote.

Official rhetoric, too, has shifted to overtly linking extreme weather events to climate change. Earlier this month, Chen Lijuan of the National Climate Center told local media that global warming means heat waves will become a “new normal,” with high temperatures coming sooner and lasting longer — a trend that will “become more pronounced in the future.”

Alicia Chen and Pei Lin Wu contributed to this report.

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