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Beijing residents cool off along a canal during a heat wave, on May 16.Ng Han Guan/The Associated Press

Cities across southern and eastern China are experiencing record-breaking heat that could be just a preview of the summer ahead.

Hundreds of weather stations have recorded all-time highs in May, with parts of southwestern Yunnan province topping 43 C. Even the region’s capital, Kunming, which at an elevation of 1,900 metres is known as the “City of Eternal Spring” for its year-round balmy climate, has sweltered in temperatures close to 30 C for much of May.

“It’s unimaginable,” said Zhang Chen, a primary school headteacher, adding that at least she can shelter inside, where it’s air-conditioned. Growing up in Kunming, she said, days in the high 20s were considered extremely hot.

Both Shanghai and Guangzhou, two of China’s largest and most important cities, have seen record highs this week, and dozens of smaller municipalities have issued extreme heat warnings, restricting the amount of work that can be done outdoors.

Some of this can be put down to weather conditions, with Typhoon Mawar driving a wave of heat in front of it as it barrels west across the Pacific. But the length and severity of heat waves have increased in China and other parts of Asia in recent years as global temperatures rise.

Last month, the World Meteorological Organization, a United Nations body, warned that the world will most likely breach a limit of 1.5 C of warming above pre-industrial levels – a limit climate scientists say is necessary to avoid the worst effects of climate change – in the next four years. This is due to El Niño, a naturally occurring weather phenomenon, further driving up temperatures that have already been increased as a result of carbon emissions. The effects will be particularly powerful in parts of Asia, including China.

“China is very vulnerable to the consequences of climate change,” said Chen Gang, a senior research fellow and expert on environmental governance at the National University of Singapore.

A recent study published in Nature warned that Beijing, with 22 million people the most populous national capital in the world, is particularly at risk of a “high-impact heat wave” that could lead to thousands of excess deaths. Last summer, China suffered its most severe heat wave on record, with drought and blackouts across large swaths of the country. Dr. Chen said similar conditions this year could have “huge consequences.”

The China Electricity Council, a government-backed think tank, has predicted that this summer’s electricity load will hit 1.37 billion kilowatts, up 80 million over 2022. According to state media, power plants across the country are already ramping up to deal with the expected surge in demand. But more often than not, despite China’s massive investment in green energy, this involves relying on fossil fuels – particularly coal.

According to Greenpeace, China has already approved more coal projects this year than it did in all of 2021, when pandemic restrictions were still having an effect on the economy. More often than not, this is done in the name of improving energy security and avoiding blackouts, the NGO said in a recent report.

“Summer is around the corner, and there’s a long list of energy infrastructure fixes needed all around China, but throwing more coal at the wall isn’t one of them,” said Greenpeace East Asia climate and energy campaigner Xie Wenwen. “China’s electric grid doesn’t lack generation capacity. The grid lacks adequate flexibility and responsiveness. These problems will continue to inhibit electricity transfer and storage until we face them head on.”

Carbon Brief, a U.K.-based research publication, said China’s emissions hit a record high in the first quarter of this year, partly owing to an economic rebound after the lifting of pandemic restrictions. However, while coal projects are on the rise, the country also saw record expansion of wind and solar capacity and increased investments in nuclear energy.

For some, the increasing heat and frequency of disasters such as droughts and flooding have underlined the growing effects of climate change on the world’s worst polluter.

Ms. Zhang said climate change “used to be more of a vague concept” for her, but now seems increasingly urgent. She said she has taught her students about environmental issues and hopes the next generation will be more mindful of them.

But Dr. Chen said there is still limited awareness of climate change in China, as the country lacks the independent environmental NGOs that drive the conversation elsewhere in the world. “I do not see any huge pressure from the public when it comes to cutting carbon emissions,” he said. “Although China is threatened by the consequences of climate change, most people don’t realize how vulnerable they are.”

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