Could China’s Very Hot Summer Revive Action on Climate Change?

A ChinaFile Conversation

For more than two months, China—along with the rest of the globe—has been struggling with extreme heat and severe droughts. Hundreds of cities are facing temperatures in the 90s and higher, and Beijing last month issued its first nationwide drought warning in nearly a decade. In terms of area spanned, the heatwave has set a global record. As in summers past, the severe heat has led to spikes in energy use which economists warn will likely lead to supply chain snarls. In Sichuan province, many factories were forced to suspend operations for more than a week.

The heat spikes are not the only extreme weather China must confront. Shanxi province faced record rainfall in August, and at least 16 people were killed by flooding in Qinghai. In June, nearly half a million people were impacted by rain that flooded cities across the south. As global temperatures continue to rise in the coming decades, China will face a steep economic and human cost.

But even as the country grapples with the impacts of global warming, a combination of domestic economic and international political factors may hamper Beijing’s response. Despite vows to cut CO2 emissions, and to peak coal usage in 2025, Beijing announced last spring that coal production would be increased. In early August, Beijing suspended long-planned U.S.-China talks on climate change because of Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. As extreme weather continues to worsen within its borders, what kinds of immediate and long-term challenges will China face? And with the next round of UN climate negotiations set for November, what do China’s actions mean for global efforts to address climate change? —The Editors


This summer’s heatwave, and the disruption it caused in China’s Sichuan province, are emblematic of future challenges for countries as they weather the worsening effects of climate change. While the severity of the heatwave may have been unpredictable, it was significantly worsened by China’s inflexible power grid system. Natural disasters ranging from droughts to floods have similarly highlighted the need for better climate adaptation measures including resilient infrastructure, better early warning and disaster management systems, and solutions for food insecurity brought on by climate change. Like other countries, China’s mitigation efforts will require a transformation of the power and industrial sectors, but the government also faces an urgent need to plan for a world with a less predictable climate. This will not be easy to achieve and we’re likely to see more disruption before we see progress.

These natural disasters are also taking place against the backdrop of a severe economic slowdown and unprecedented lockdowns in pursuit of the government’s “zero-COVID” policy, which are worsening China’s prospects for growth. Despite the positive effects reduced economic activity can have on emissions, which some estimates suggest have fallen significantly this year, economic downturns are not conducive to bold policy targets that may affect growth or energy security. Climate policy is no exception: We are unlikely to see any commitment to phase out coal this year, especially as policymakers scramble to ensure the country has enough energy resources to avoid future shutdowns. Insofar as policymakers see coal as a reliable energy source that can help cope with sudden surges in demand or failures by other energy sources, like hydropower, we are likely going to see continued Chinese government support for building thermal power plants. Consequently, announcements at the next COP27 may be underwhelming. Moreover, regardless of whether bilateral climate talks resume or not, the rocky relationship between the United States and China will make cooperation difficult.

There are some silver linings: The expansion of solar and wind power in China is expected once again to break records and keeps the country in line with its international commitments. More generation capacity, of any kind, is key to avoiding future energy crises and will incentivize the continued expansion of renewables other than hydropower. Poor integration of China’s power markets has long been identified as a challenge in fighting climate change, but now that it has become a tangible threat to economic and social stability it is likely we’ll see more commitment to reform. Economic restructuring, including reducing reliance on the real estate sector, may also bring down emissions from the cement and steel industries, which have a huge carbon footprint. These trends may, at least for now, keep some momentum towards reducing emissions. But ultimately, domestic policy, whether motivated by competition or necessity, continues to be the most important factor to track to measure progress on climate change. Bolder political ambition will be needed if China is to make substantial contributions to reducing emissions in the long term, and that may be harder to come by as the country navigates unprecedented economic and global instability.

The heatwaves and droughts have once again underscored China’s vulnerability to climate change and extreme weather, and supplied even more reasons to reduce emissions, as well as to promote action in the rest of the world.

The droughts and heatwaves also resulted in electricity shortages in hydropower-reliant provinces of central China, especially Sichuan. This exposed weaknesses and rigidities in China’s electrical grid management: Sichuan continued to export large amounts of electricity to the east, while rationing consumption within the province. There are also indications that coal and gas power plants failed to operate during the shortage due to the high fuel prices, contributing to the shortages. The lack of flexible grid management perpetuates reliance on coal power and creates a perceived need to build more of it. Electricity shortages experienced in autumn 2021 already had led to fast-tracking grid reforms that had been stuck for a long time, and this summer’s power crunch is likely to accelerate this process further.

2022 has also seen record-breaking clean energy installations, and some promising policy action. The targets of peaking emissions in the iron and steel sector before 2025, and cement industry emissions before 2023, were confirmed recently. This is highly significant, as the sectors are some of the largest carbon emitters in China after power generation.

China’s CO2 emissions fell for 12 straight months up to June, due to a slowdown in real estate construction, COVID-19 control measures, and strong clean energy growth.

All of these trends indicate that there is space for China to strengthen the country’s emissions targets for this decade. The current targets leave the specific timeline and level of emissions peak open and more clarity is needed. Specifying peaking years and levels for key energy-intensive sectors, for example, would make China’s targets much more transparent and specific.

China’s decision to suspend bilateral climate talks with the U.S. obviously had little to do with climate and a lot to do with politics. China doesn’t need to talk to the U.S. in order to accelerate climate action at home, motivated by the climate impacts the country faces, and to increase support for clean energy and climate adaptation in developing countries, as president Xi has pledged. These are the essential contributions that China can make.

The heatwave along China’s Yangtze River basin presents both risks and opportunities for China’s climate action.

On the one hand, severe power shortages in Sichuan and Chongqing might prelude a stronger pivot toward energy security through the addition of more coal plants. This approach would be unfortunate. It is ironic to address a climate change-induced crisis with a solution that only exacerbates the underlying problem. But it is indeed a politically appealing solution. Hunan, a province that has a similar energy portfolio to Sichuan and suffered from cold weather and a power crisis in 2020, has pursued more coal plants to ensure power supply and currently has more coal projects under development than any other Chinese provinces.

On the other hand, the extreme heatwave, together with weather events such as the 2021 flood in Zhengzhou, is driving home the urgency of climate change for the Chinese public. These developments are challenging the long-standing narrative that China has been a disaster-prone country throughout its history and what’s happening now is no different from the past. The climate impacts are not just the hard figures of temperatures or precipitation levels, but how people experience them both physically and emotionally. Slowly but surely, this will shift how the country perceives the need to take climate action.

An important question is where we will go from here: Will awareness grow over time and trigger policy action (as Beijing’s airpocalypse did for reducing regional coal consumption), or will short-term memory prevail as the country moves on to the next immediate challenge? It’s too early to tell, but the answer will matter a great deal. As the effects of the traditional drivers of China’s climate action diminish, climate risk could become an emerging reason to act.

The recent suspension of U.S.-China climate talks might represent one such diminishing driver. Over the last decade, stabilizing its relationship with the U.S. and projecting a responsive global image have motivated Beijing to act on climate change. Cutting off the bilateral climate hotline brought all these motives into question. What’s clear is the move is bad news for global climate politics. Some climate change experts have argued that what matters most is the U.S. and China taking respective domestic actions. While that’s certainly a valid point, we should not write off the value of engagement between the two biggest emitters in the world. Put simply, no global challenge can be effectively managed if the U.S. and China won’t even talk to one another.

The suspension of U.S.-China climate talks therefore represents a risky and consequential shift amid an ongoing struggle to keep the climate agenda away from geopolitics. Putting who’s responsible for the move aside, the current situation undermines the basis of global climate effort. It is therefore in all sides’ interest to restore U.S.-China climate talks in the run-up to COP27. Both the U.S. and China should consider using potential high-level meeting opportunities at the G20 summit in November to unlock their climate talks. In the meantime, the balance between private engagement and public diplomacy should be carefully considered. Given that the planet’s future is at stake, other players, such as the UN, should also consider a mediating role.

The suspension of U.S.-China climate talks—once a diplomatic bedrock for the Paris agreement—came as a surprise, and its implications for multilateral climate cooperation are grave. Yet there is little doubt that it is in China’s national self-interest to act to address climate vulnerabilities and choking smog, by moving the economy away from polluting manufacturing toward innovation and services and taking a leading position in innovative clean technology markets.

China’s high vulnerability to climate change is also not news for Chinese policymakers. The Chinese government released its first national assessment on climate change in 2006 and is now preparing its fourth. These long, integrated reports (the third ran to 900 pages, with more than 500 authors) detail the many risks posed by climate change to China’s water, food, and energy systems, vitally important glaciers, and more.

That these impacts will worsen—devastating harvests, aggravating droughts, inundating coastal areas—under high emissions scenarios is rarely disputed. Chen Lijuan, the chief forecaster at China’s National Climate Centre, said that climate change could make deadly heatwaves, like this recent one, the new normal in China.

The policy response is also clear. China’s “dual carbon” goals, to peak emissions before 2030 and reach net zero by 2060, are tantamount to a national religion at this point. Following President Xi Jinping’s announcement at the UN General Assembly in 2020, a raft of policymaking has seen the integration of decarbonization into planning around every sector of the economy, from rural revitalization to steel and plastic production.

Though disappointing, it should come as no surprise that China is hedging its policies in response to a global energy market in turmoil (even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this was seen in rolling blackouts across China last winter), not to mention geopolitical and macroeconomic headwinds. China’s domestic coal mining has ramped up. Yet coal generation continues to fall, and with softening demand, we shouldn’t necessarily expect imports to bounce back in the future, nor coal burning to increase.

The worry is less that China’s domestic environmental policies are backsliding, but that international environmental cooperation is increasingly held hostage by geopolitics. The COP27 climate talks appear under-prepared, unambitious, and deadlocked. The heavily delayed COP15 biodiversity talks, also to take place later this year, have been moved to Montreal after China said it can no longer host them. For the world’s poorest people, who have contributed the least to climate change and yet disproportionately suffer its effects, this is an outrage and failure of solidarity—and it should motivate us all to demand more from our leaders.