(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)
LITTLETON, Colorado - Emissions from China's power sector are set to hit new highs over the coming summer as rising temperatures spur increased air conditioner use just as factories and heavy industry continue to expand output from last year's pandemic-hit levels.
Consecutive record months of thermal coal imports in March and April also indicate that utilities are bracing to crank coal-fired power generation as they look to keep pace with the anticipated climb in overall power demand.
As China accounts for roughly 40% of worldwide power sector emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other gases, data from Ember shows, any sustained climb in discharge from the world's top polluter stands to potentially undermine efforts to cap global emissions totals.
China's average temperatures in 2022 were 1.5 -2.0 degrees Celsius above the 1971-2000 average, according to data compiled by the Institute for Environmental Analytics.
Long-range weather forecasts for central and southern China call for temperatures to average around 3.0-3.5% above the long-term average this July and August, data from Refinitiv shows, and may trend higher as the peak summer period nears.
The combination of the long-term rise in average temperatures alongside above-normal forecasts for the upcoming summer look set to trigger record demand for airconditioning this year, especially across the populous east and south which are among the warmest parts of the country.
Those areas are also home to China's largest manufacturing hubs, which have started to rapidly revive output from the stunted levels in 2022 when zero-COVID-19 policies restricted the movement of people and goods and clipped economic growth.
The southern and eastern parts of China are also among the most coal-dependent parts of the country in terms of power production, and so will likely be a major source of coal-power emissions growth as power demand levels climb. (Related column: Peak emissions hopes to be tested as China & Europe crank output)
COAL IMPORTS CRANK
To feed the country's ongoing industrial revival, China's power producers have stepped up imports of thermal coal, and imports through April are roughly 77% more than a year earlier, according to data from ship-tracking firm Kpler.
Additional increases in coal imports are likely if power producers expect demand from air conditioner use to rise alongside further gains in industrial power consumption.
In turn, higher coal imports and use look set to yield higher power sector emissions, which scaled record highs of nearly 4.6 billion tonnes last year despite the stop-start nature of industrial activity in 2022.
So far in 2023, China's power sector emissions are holding slightly below those of early 2022, Ember data shows, thanks to greater supply of renewable power which is displacing some fossil fuels in the generation mix.
However, if overall power consumption continues to climb into the summer months, then power emissions will likely soon start to rise above the totals of a year ago, which dropped off in May and June of 2022 amid widespread lockdowns and factory closures.
Greater demand for air conditioners at night when solar power production stops will also likely elevate overall power generation demand levels this summer.
Power consumption and emissions levels will likely drop off again once the hottest months of summer are over.
But between now and then China's peak power demand period looms, which in 2023 could be notable due to the combination of revived industrial demand on top of record air conditioner use.
(Reporting By Gavin Maguire; Editing by Himani Sarkar)