Residents take shelter from the sun as they wait for a bus in Beijing on July 15. Temperatures have surpassed all-time records as a heatwave sweeps across much of the country. Photo: AP
Li Zhao and Yiwei Gan
Li Zhao and Yiwei Gan

Global heatwaves show urgency of adapting to changing climate

  • Soaring temperatures across China, India, Pakistan, Japan, the US and Europe are endangering people’s health and countries’ energy grids
  • Cooling buildings and warming the planet could become a vicious cycle, potentially blowing the world’s ‘energy budget’ needed to limit the global temperature rise to 2 degrees
The concern over a “year without a summer” after Tonga’s volcanic eruption at the start of the year soon disappeared as early and extreme heatwaves swept the planet.
In April, the Hong Kong Observatory issued its earliest “very hot” weather warning, with temperatures of up to 33 degrees Celsius seen. In India, daytime temperatures hit 50 degrees in some places in May. In Pakistan, where the thermometer also reached 50 degrees, daytime temperatures were 5 to 8 degrees above normal in large swathes of the country.

These extreme highs were beyond the physical tolerance of many. Early reports indicated more than 90 deaths across India and Pakistan as a result of the heatwave.

Mainland China has been suffering heatwaves since mid-June, with temperatures in some cities above 40 degrees. Increasingly, officials need to consider the effects of high temperatures and humidity on vulnerable people, including the elderly, young and those who work outdoors.


Soaring temperatures trigger red alerts in 68 Chinese cities as roofs melt and roads buckle

Soaring temperatures trigger red alerts in 68 Chinese cities as roofs melt and roads buckle
Unusually early and intense heatwaves have also spread across Europe and North Africa. Temperatures in Spain, France, and Germany reached historical highs before summer. The temperature topped 40 degrees in parts of Spain on consecutive days in mid-June, making it the earliest heatwave since 1981, according to the state meteorological agency.
The number of people affected by these heatwaves is also growing. During the heatwave in the United States in June, almost 20 per cent of the population experienced temperatures above 37 degrees. More than 9 million people were subject to heat alerts across eight states.
Shanghai, a megacity with a population of almost 25 million people, is experiencing its highest temperatures since records began. The high relative humidity adds to the threat to health. Those working outdoors face a heat index of up to 45 degrees during the day, putting them at high risk of heatstroke.
Cooling inside spaces is a vital part of reducing the risk of heat-related diseases, but doing so could also result in a large increase in energy use that not every society can afford. In Japan, officials have called on citizens to conserve electricity as the country deals with a power supply crunch.


Tokyo braces for power shortages as Japan experiences warmest June ever

Tokyo braces for power shortages as Japan experiences warmest June ever

Japan is not the only country facing the risk of energy shortages during a heatwave, and neither is it the most severely affected. Heatwaves, cooling and electricity shortages have long been tightly connected, as cooling accounts for nearly 20 per cent of the total electricity used in buildings around the world, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Polling agency LocalCircles found that nearly two-thirds of Indian households were affected by power cuts and outages during heatwaves earlier this year. As around 70 per cent of the country’s electricity is produced by coal, New Delhi is taking measures to reinforce its power grid to meet demand.

Global energy consumption from the cooling sector is projected to grow about 2.5-fold to 9,500 terawatt hours by 2050, according to a 2018 study from the University of Birmingham. That is 50 per cent higher than the IEA’s “energy budget” needed to limit the global temperature rise to 2 degrees.

Deadly South Asia heatwave ‘once-in-3,000-year event before climate change’

Accelerated technological progress and a swift transition to renewable energy are essential to achieving that goal. Without that transition, cooling buildings and heating up the planet will become a vicious cycle.

Urban adaptation is also an essential part of this effort, especially in cities located on or near the coast. A 2021 Greenpeace study of seven Asian coastal cities showed that their economies are increasingly vulnerable to climate change as unpredictable extreme weather events grow more frequent.

Here in Hong Kong, high storm surges from extreme weather such as Typhoon Mangkhut are likely to become more frequent as these storms become more powerful. Thus, it is imperative for officials to improve their understanding and ability to project the potential impact of these events, to strengthen the city’s resilience amid a changing global climate.

Dr Li Zhao is a senior researcher at Greenpeace East Asia. Yiwei Gan is a campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia