This week, an extreme heat wave has consumed northern Chinese cities causing exceptionally high demand for electricity and resulting in plans for more coal usage. The State Grid Corporation of China (SGCC), a state-owned electric utility corporation, released a statement on June 21st announcing they would “strengthen coordination with relevant coal, oil and gas suppliers” to combat the high demand for electricity in recent weeks. On the same day, the maximum electricity load reached a record of 92.94 million kilowatts in Shandong which is nearly three million kilowatts higher than the record set in 2020.
The implications of greater coal usage in China to meet the power demand could mean worsening human-driven climate change by increasing toxic air pollution, as well as putting coal miners’ lives at risk. The environmental and human safety concerns that have arisen with the rise in temperatures are worrisome, and the Chinese government’s response prioritizes short-term solutions over long-term ones. While additional coal usage may alleviate immediate concerns of power outages, the future repercussions of these actions could be detrimental to both the climate and human safety.
The spike in electricity demand is a result of temperatures exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit in numerous northern cities in China. As weather conditions become unbearable outside, people turn to their indoor air conditioning systems for relief, putting immense strain on the power grid. According to China’s meteorological administration, “for this region, it is rare to see such persistence and intensity in high temperatures at this time in June.” In past years, the peak temperatures have typically been in late July and early August. These early strains on the electricity load in northern Chinese cities could soon cause problems as temperatures continue to rise throughout the rest of summer.
Limited or no access to cool air during a heat-related power outage could lead to physical symptoms such as dehydration, heat stroke, or even death. From an economic perspective, power outages could negatively impact production levels and reduce the nation’s GDP. If workers are unable to safely complete their jobs, businesses may have to temporarily shut down. Furthermore, extreme heat may cause infrastructure problems such as cracked cement roads. With these factors in mind, China is working diligently to secure a sufficient power supply that can withstand the intense heat occupying its northern cities.
The power needed to sustain China’s electric grid has been met with the increased coal mining solution. This plan, however, contradicts earlier promises made by President Xi Jinping to peak greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060. The details for achieving these goals have been vague since Mr. Xi announced them in September 2020 at the United Nations General Assembly, but recent events indicate that for now, at least, China is favoring its economic growth over prior environmental commitments.
It is unlikely that China’s plan to burn more coal will deter similar heat waves or other kinds of extreme weather from continuing to happen in the future. Using the same methods that have perpetuated this problem for decades will result in the same outcomes. The best solution to mitigating the severity of extreme weather conditions across China, and the world, is to transform the approaches nations take to the crises they face today relating to weather. Instead of allocating more money and resources to the coal industry, China could use those funds to sponsor innovative projects that address climate concerns while still promoting economic growth. Investing in renewable and clean energy solutions today will save millions of dollars and lives in the future.