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China’s record drought feeds its coal habit, with link to climate change

HONG KONG — Car assembly plants and electronics factories in southwest China have shut down due to lack of power. Electric car owners wait at charging stations overnight to charge their vehicle. The rivers there are so low that ships can no longer carry supplies.

A record drought and an 11-week heat wave are causing widespread disruption in a region that depends on dams for more than three-quarters of its electricity generation.

Factory closures and logistical delays are hampering China’s efforts to revive its economy as the country’s leader, Xi Jinping, prepares to claim a third term in office this fall.

The ruling Communist Party is already struggling to reverse a slowdown in China, the world’s second-largest economy, caused by the country’s strict Covid-19 shutdowns and a declining property market.

Young people are struggling to find jobs, while uncertainty over the economic outlook is pushing residents to save instead of spend and delay buying new homes.

Today, extreme heat adds to the frustration by roaring power supplies, threatening crops and sparking forest fires. The reduction in electricity from hydroelectric dams has prompted China to burn more coal, a major contributor to air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.

Many cities across the country have been forced to impose blackouts or limit energy consumption. In Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, several neighborhoods remained without electricity for more than 10 hours a day.

The heat wave scorched China for more than two months, stretching from southwest Sichuan to the country’s east coast and sending temperatures above 40°C for several days.

In Chongqing, a sprawling southwestern metropolis with around 20 million people, the temperature soared to 45C last week, the first time such a high reading had been recorded in a Chinese city outside the region. western desert of Xinjiang.

The sweltering heat sparked wildfires in mountains and forests on the outskirts of Chongqing, where thousands of firefighters and volunteers worked to put out the blazes. Residents said the air smelled of acrid smoke.

The drought has dried up dozens of rivers and reservoirs in the region and halved Sichuan’s hydroelectric generating capacity, hurting industrial output.

Volkswagen has closed its sprawling 6,000-employee plant in Chengdu over the past week and a half, and Toyota has also temporarily suspended operations at its assembly plant.

Foxconn, the Taiwanese electronics giant, and CATL, the world’s largest maker of electric car batteries, have both cut production at nearby factories.

In Ezhou, a city in central China near Wuhan, the Yangtze River is now at its lowest level for this time of year since record keeping began in 1865.

People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s main newspaper, reported on August 19 that the Yangtze River had fallen to the same average level it normally reaches at the end of the winter dry season.

But the disruptions from the hydropower deficit are being felt far from the southwest, including in cities in eastern China, which are hydropower buyers. Some factories and commercial buildings in cities like Hangzhou and Shanghai are rationing electricity.

Kevin Ni, an online marketing worker in Hangzhou, said his office was stuffy because few air conditioners were allowed to run.

“We have to eat popsicles and drink frozen drinks,” he said. “I just put my hands on the popsicles, it chills me the most.”

Falling water levels in major rivers that serve major transport hubs in the region have also caused delays elsewhere in the supply chain. The Yangtze River has receded so much that many ocean-going ships can no longer reach upstream ports.

The upper Yangtze basin normally receives half of its annual rainfall in July and August, so no rain this year may mean a long wait for more water.

This forces China to divert a large number of trucks to transport their cargo. A single ship may require 500 or more trucks to move its cargo.

“We’re losing a few months of really efficient shipping,” said Even Rogers Pay, a food and agriculture analyst at Trivium, a Beijing-based consultancy.

The heat wave and drought are also starting to drive up food prices in China, especially for fruits and vegetables. Farmers’ fields and orchards are withering.

Sichuan is one of China’s top producers of apples, plums and other fruits, and dying fruit trees could take five years to replace. The price of bok choy, a popular cabbage, nearly doubled in Wuhan this month.

“It’s going to create more economic pain, which is the last thing leaders want to see,” Mr Pay said.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs and four other departments issued an emergency notice on Tuesday warning that drought posed a “serious threat” to China’s autumn harvest.

On Wednesday, August 24, China’s Cabinet approved $1.5 billion (S$2.09 billion) for disaster relief and assistance to rice farmers and another $1.5 billion for block farm subsidies. .

The government has urged local officials to seek more water sources and allocate more electricity to support farmers and promote the planting of leafy vegetables, which are highly perishable, in major cities. Fire engines were used to spray water on fields and deliver water to pig farms.

The extreme weather patterns sweeping China also have potential implications for global efforts to stem climate change. Beijing has sought to offset at least some of the hydroelectricity lost to the drought by increasing the use of coal-fired power plants.

China’s domestic coal mining is at or near record highs, and customs data shows its coal imports from Russia hit a new high last month.

But China’s dependence on fossil fuels raises questions about its commitment to slowing the growth of its carbon emissions.

“In the short term in China, the very, very painful realization is that only coal can be the basis” for electricity supply, said Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a group environment of Beijing.

Sichuan province has for many years attracted energy-intensive industries such as chemical manufacturing with extremely low electricity prices, he said, and some of these industries have wasted energy. energy due to lack of efficiency.

Ma, however, was optimistic about the direction of China’s climate strategy, saying that in the medium term, “China is very committed to carbon targets and renewable energy.”

The government has sought to mitigate the effects of global warming on its economy. The National Development and Reform Commission, China’s main economic planning ministry, set up a task force last winter to analyze the effects of climate change on water-related industries such as dams. hydroelectric.

While such efforts may help China preserve the viability of renewable energy programs, they may not prompt it to limit coal burning this year as a quick fix, said Ed Cunningham, director of the Asia Energy and Sustainability Initiative at Harvard Kennedy School.

“They’re much more comfortable with coal,” Mr Cunningham said, “and the reality is that when there’s a hydro power shortage, they use coal.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.