China droughts highlight energy challenge as climate heats up

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The world's second-largest economy confronts significant hurdles in meeting its energy needs in the years to come in the face of a changing climate, as seen by China's record-breaking heatwaves and droughts.

Beijing, China

In the upcoming years, China's already massive energy usage is expected to increase due to hotter and drier weather. This means that in addition to successfully managing the switch from fossil fuels to green energy, policymakers will also need to address weaknesses in the system's network of renewables, such as hydro and wind.

When droughts shut down hydroelectric plants along the Yangtze River last month, millions of people and companies in China's southwest went without electricity, exposing the limitations of the country's current renewable energy grid.

In order for China to meet its goals of reaching carbon neutrality by 2060 and peak carbon emissions by 2030, hydropower has been identified as a crucial pillar.

According to Ma, who laments a "huge gap" between the potential and reality, renewables have the ability to produce 85% of the energy required in the southwest province of Sichuan, but actual consumption only comes to 38% due to storage capacity.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank estimates that between 2000 and 2019, when China made up about one-third of the world's hydroelectric capacity, its hydropower capacity expanded by a factor of six.

Last month, officials in Chongqing, which is home to the factories of major brands like Honda, Ford, and Isuzu Motors, forced firms to temporarily halt operations in order to preserve energy when temperatures climbed as high as 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit). Authorities in Dazhou, a 5.4 million-person city in central Sichuan, started rationing energy for residences, businesses, and retail establishments.

The heat in July, which came before the peak of the heatwave, caused losses of 2.73 billion yuan ($391 million) and had an impact on 5.5 million people across 185,000 hectares (457,500 acres) of land, according to official statistics that was released in late August.

According to Jonna Nyman, a lecturer in international relations at the University of Sheffield, "China remains heavily dependent on coal power, which is water intensive." "China's energy supply is already constrained, and these difficulties pressure an already stressed system even more."

Beijing is relying on a number of ambitious plans included in its 14th five-year plan for the development of renewable and non-fossil fuel energy in the long run, including plans to construct wind and solar power plants within the next eight years with a capacity equal to the entirety of Europe's renewable energy grid.

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