World’s biggest polluter just had its hottest year on record, marked by deadly extreme weather

China saw its hottest year on record in 2023, state media reported this week, as the world’s biggest polluter confronted a series of relentless heat waves and other extreme weather events driven by the human-caused climate crisis.

Daily and monthly temperature records were repeatedly shattered as the year wore on while the country grappled with scorching heat waves, which authorities said had arrived earlier and been more widespread and extreme than in previous years.

China’s exceptional warmth echoed global trends – with scientists confirming that 2023 will officially be the hottest year on record, the result of the combined effects of El Niño and climate change.

The average temperature in China last year stood at 10.7 degrees Celsius – the highest since records began in 1961, according to the National Climate Center, state-run news agency Xinhua reported.

It breaks the previous record of 10.5°C set in 2021.

Across the country, 127 weather stations recorded their highest ever daily temperatures, state-run newspaper China Daily reported.

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The highest of those was 52.2°C on July 16 in Turpan’s Sanpu town, in the far western Xinjiang region.

The prolonged and persistent heat affected hundreds of millions of people and put huge strain on the country’s power grid. In July, China Energy Investment Corporation, one of the world’s largest generators of coal-fired power, said the volume of electricity it produced had hit a daily record.

There were also reports of farm animals, including pigs, rabbits and fish, dying from the searing temperatures and wheat fields in central China being flooded by heavy rainfall, raising concerns about food security in the world’s second largest economy.

A similar story played out across the world in 2023, with a series of deadly heat waves and remarkable record temperatures hitting several continents, while unprecedented ocean heat blanketed much of the globe.

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Analysis from the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service found 2023’s global temperature will be more than 1.4 degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial levels — close to the 1.5-degree threshold in the Paris climate agreement, and beyond which scientists say humans and ecosystems will struggle to adapt.

Extreme highs and lows

At the other end of the scale, China also recorded its lowest ever temperature last year on January 22, when Jintao town in Mohe, northeastern Heilongjiang province dropped to -53° C.

And in December, the capital Bejing recorded its longest cold wave since records began in 1951, as sub-zero temperatures stretched heating capacity of some cities in northern China to its limit.

China’s extreme weather also saw some of the heaviest rainfall in decades, with flooding bringing devastation to millions of people’s lives and causing billions of dollars in damage.

A total of 55 national weather stations recorded their highest daily rainfall in 2023, according to the National Climate Center.

Typhoon Doksuri slammed into southeastern Fujian province on July 28, bringing rains that soaked Hebei, a province of 75 million, and the neighboring cities of Beijing and Tianjin.

Flooding in those regions killed about 30 people, displaced more than 1 million and  washed away houses, bridges and highways, according to Chinese authorities.

The storm also brought the heaviest rainfall Beijing has experienced in 140 years, marking a significant test of the region’s capacity to handle extreme weather that experts warn will become more frequent with climate change.

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Scientists are clear that the climate crisis is making extreme weather events – such as heat waves, storms and heavy rainfall – more frequent and intense, and they will continue to become more frequent and severe as the planet heats up while humans burn more fossil fuels.

China is the world’s biggest polluter, making up nearly 30% of global emissions and accounting for over half of global demand for coal, according to the International Energy Agency.

The World Bank has said that without China successfully reducing its planet-heating emissions and transitioning to clean energy, the world will have little chance of achieving its climate goals.

China has been accelerating production of sustainable energy and the country is on track to double its wind and solar energy capacity and hit its 2030 clean energy targets as soon as 2025, a June report found.

In November, China pledged a major ramp-up of renewable energy, alongside the United States, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The country also played a key role in climate negotiations at the COP28 summit in Dubai in December, which made an unprecedented call to transition away from fossil fuels.

However, China did not sign an official agreement to triple renewable energy capacity and double energy efficiency, both by 2030, according to Carbon Brief.

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