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How China’s drought risks national climate goals

Genevieve Donnellon-May | Climate Change Fellow

China’s summer from hell

Amongst growing concerns of food security, turbulent geopolitics, and domestic challenges such as the slowing down economy, China is facing yet another challenge – extreme weather events. For China, this summer is the country’s driest and hottest summer since records began in 1961, leading to widespread drought.

The drought has significantly affected the Yangtze River Basin (YRB) and its tributaries, home to over 40 per cent of the country’s population. Estimates suggest that the Yangtze provides drinking water to approximately 400 million people, almost one-third of China’s population, and accounts for 45% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).

Aside from raising concerns over China’s water and food security, the drought has also amplified fears over China’s energy security and ability to meet national climate goals.

China has often received criticism for being the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter. Producing around 27% of global carbon dioxide and one-third of the world’s greenhouse gases, China’s emissions exceed those of all developed nations combined. Furthermore, the country’s carbon-intensive industries have resulted in other environmental challenges, such as significant soil contamination, severe air pollution, and strong water pollution.

From this perspective, Beijing’s national climate goals are imperative to ensure China successfully transitions to a low-carbon economy and avoids further environmental degradation. As the World Bank notes, if China fails in this endeavour, it will be impossible to achieve global climate goals.

Sichuan: China’s hydropower hub

One of the most impacted provinces in China is Sichuan, China’s biggest hydropower producer. As 80 per cent of the province’s energy comes from hydropower dams, Sichuan is heavily reliant on water and thus vulnerable to drought. The recent drought has caused up to 50 per cent of Sichuan’s reservoirs to dry up, thereby causing a domino effect on the province’s hydropower generation and exports.

As Sichuan exports hydropower to developed coastal regions like Zhejiang and Jiangsu, which have greater population density and stronger energy demand, Sichuan’s low water levels and subsequent reduced hydropower capacity sparked widespread electricity rationing and threatened energy supplies in other provinces.

Implications for China’s energy security

The electricity shortages in hydropower-reliant regions raise questions about China’s energy security. Given the low water levels currently in Sichuan’s reservoirs combined with low levels of predicted precipitation, droughts are expected to continue to impact the province’s hydropower production over the next few months.

To overcome this power shortage, Beijing has sought greater reliance on coal, which already supplies nearly 70 per cent of China’s energy use. The National Energy Administration of China recently stated that coal output has increased by 19.4 per cent year-on-year from August 1 to August 17 to fuel coal-fired plants.

However, the increased use of coal starkly contrasts Beijing’s so-called ‘2060’ climate change goals.

Alternative energy sources

For China to transition to a more sustainable and carbon-neutral future, an enormous shift in resources, innovation, and new technologies is necessary to support energy efficiency and resource productivity. As China seeks to shift energy use to clean energy sources like hydroelectricity, more dams are expected to be built. However, this severe drought challenges China’s renewable energy and carbon reduction plans.

To overcome these challenges, Beijing could consider more significant investment in nuclear power and innovative energy sources like space-based solar power (SBSP).

Nuclear energy

The Chinese central government has demonstrated a growing interest in nuclear energy production in recent decades. Nuclear power currently accounts for 3 per cent of the country’s electricity.

By 2035, Beijing aims to double its nuclear capacity by building more than 150 new reactors, with nuclear power expected to account for 10 per cent of China’s total power generation.

Space-based solar power (SBSP)

The development of SBSP is expected to reap many benefits, and potentially usher in a new age of clean energy. SBSP refers to orbital systems that collect and harvest solar energy using solar-powered satellites – enormous spacecraft with solar panels. The main benefit is that SBSP enables terrestrial power availability unaffected by weather or time of day and can also be used as an energy source for communities in remote areas and disaster-struck places.

In recent decades, China has also become increasingly interested in SBSP. In addition to having established a 200-million-yuan (US$28.4 million) testing base in Sichuan and planning to launch an ambitious space solar power plant program, China expects to be the first country to build a working solar power station in space by the end of the decade.

The YRB drought is yet another challenge for China’s leaders for the next few tumultuous years. Despite the ‘2060’ national climate goals, the drought has usurpingly resulted in greater coal consumption and puts China’s ability to meet the climate goals in doubt. Moreover, the looming spectre of potential future power shortages, brought on by more severe droughts, raises questions over the reliability of renewable energy sources that rely on water. While the increased domestic production of hydropower could be one way for China to achieve its climate goals, Beijing should consider further investing in other clean energy forms, such as nuclear energy and SBSP.

Genevieve Donnellon-May is the Climate Change Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs

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