No Need to Sacrifice Asia’s Rivers to Power China’s Development

Grace Mang
Friday, February 13, 2015

Recently climate change advocates have been lauding Chinas commitments to cut carbon pollution. The US-China climate deal was hailed as a breakthrough in the Middle Kingdoms attitude towards global warming, with President Obama calling it “a historic agreement”.

Chinas commitments sound impressive: to peak carbon emissions and source 20% of all energy consumption from renewable resources by 2030. This will almost certainly lead to a dramatic reduction in coal power production: good news for our climate.

But the devil is, as always, in the detail.

Celebrating Chinas commitments to phase out coal without asking how it will meet its targets is a dangerous game. Because while most might assume that China will replace its demand for coal with abundant and affordable renewable energy like solar and wind, the truth is that theres a new energy - massive hydropower - bringing severe risks of its own.

Right now, Chinese dam builders and energy planners are getting ready to ramp up construction of new hydropower dams on Chinas rivers at unprecedented levels. The Governments new carbon targets provide the perfect excuse.

And despite the well-proven dangers of this approach, many Chinese and international civil society organizations like WWF China and NRDC are supporting this approach in the name of tackling climate change.

In this context, its never been more important to have a conversation about the real cost of building large dams on Chinas few remaining wild rivers.

International Rivers new report, the True Cost of Hydropower, explores the assumption that there is no alternative to building large hydropower in order to meet Chinas carbon reduction targets.

The report explores the implications of hydropowers significant seasonal variability and shows alternative pathways for Chinas energy transition pathways that dont irreversibly damage Chinas valuable southwest rivers.

These rivers - canyons that were refuge corridors for key species and plant life during the last ice age - run through global biodiversity hotspots. Scores of different ethnic minority groups live along their banks. During late winter, they flow bright blue carrying snowmelt from the Tibetan plateau, regenerating key agricultural areas downstream in China, Myanmar and Thailand.

Already, major scientific research projects have found that many of Chinas freshwater ecosystems are at the point of collapse. Hydropower dams block fish migration and turn flowing rivers into stagnant pools of water more suited non-endemic species. Due to the massive exploitation of the river, the number of fish species observed in the Yangtze (Upstream) has already been slashed from 143 to 17.

The social costs of large dams are similarly enormous. Since, 1980, more than 23 million people have been resettled to make way for reservoirs in China. And despite impressive national economic growth, about one third of these resettled people still live below the poverty line. In southwest China, experts predict the largest forced migration of ethnic minorities in Chinas history as a result of the dams proposed in the region. 

Due to changing climatic conditions, hydropower’s seasonal variability will only increase and perhaps increase China’s coal dependency. In the True Cost of Hydropower Report, we sought to compare the contribution of hydropower and coal power production to China’s overall electrical power generation. The China Rivers Report published in late 2013 provided anecdotal evidence that for every large hydropower station constructed in South West China, so too is a coal fired power station to balance out variability. By comparing the contribution of hydropower and coal power based on publicly available date between 2010 and 2014, the very strong correlation between hydropower and coal was revealed.

However, our research revealed also that there is high seasonal variability – higher than 30% - in hydropower and we also found that under changing climate conditions in South West China, the level of variability will only increase. Seasonal variations in water availability mean that hydropower production tends to be low in the dry season and high in the wet season. However, we found clear changes between years. When hydropower production is low, due to drought conditions, coal fired power generation is very high. For example, drought conditions during the wet season in 2011 and 2013 meant that coal fire production was usually high in the same period.     

The international environmental community is pressuring China meet its carbon reduction targets in ways that dont irreversibly damage these ecosystems. The good news is that its possible: The True Cost of Hydropower report explores an electricity sector development model for China which only allows for a very limited increase in hydropower generation with ambitious investments in renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. The river conservation scenario, developed for this report, has as its key constraints:

  • limiting hydropower capacity to 270 GW by 2020 and maintained at that level until 2035,
  • before dams are decommissioned in line with 50 year life cycle,
  • no nuclear capacity was permitted.

Even with hydropower development capped at 270 GW to preserve the remaining Southwest Rivers such as the Nu  and the headwaters of the Jinsha  , Lancang [and Nu, there is no substantial increase carbon emissions per year or a substantial increase in investment levels to implement. Under the scenario, solar and wind constitute 33 and 30 per cent of electricity generation sources by 2050 and gas-fired power is at 31% (at a 60% capacity factor which we found was more economically and financially viable).

The river conservation scenario is competitive even when examined against 100% renewable scenarios prepared by WWF China, which proposes to increase hydropower capacity beyond government targets to 510 GW. Such scenarios would certainly fundamentally change and irreversibly damage China’s fresh water ecosystems.

China does not need to sacrifice her arteries to save her lungs. With further study and analysis, more ways to protect Chinas freshwater ecosystems through more robust energy planning scenarios can found. 

For 30 years International Rivers has been working to protect the worlds rivers and the communities that depend on them. In China, we aim to protect healthy rivers so that future generations can also benefit from them. We also aim to protect local peoples rights to shared prosperity within their own culture. Our work is driven by the desire to discover, dedication to research, guided by strong analysis, and devoted to passionate advocacy. The True Cost of Hydropower Report can be found at International Rivers’ website and is supported by the Energy Transition Research Institute.

(The article was originally published in China Water Risk.)