China climate targets prompt fears over surge in dam construction | Financial Times

This article originally appeared in Financial Times

By: Lucy Hornby

China’s plan to cut carbon emissions commits Beijing to a surge in construction of ecologically destructive hydropower dams that heralds the end of free-flowing rivers in the country, experts say.

Beijing last week formally submitted its 2030 goals for generating energy from non-fossil fuels, garnering international praise as nations prepare for the Paris climate summit in December. The White House welcomed the announcement, which it said would pave the way for a “successful climate agreement” in France.

But the goals cement China’s commitment to another round of dams in southwest, central and far-western China, which would seal the fate of the few remaining free-flowing rivers — some of them sources for vitally important river systems within China and in neighbouring countries.

“By the end of the 13th five-year plan the rivers in southwest China will be basically gone,” said Stephanie Jensen-Cormier, spokeswoman for NGO International Rivers, referring to China’s industrial blueprint for the five years until 2020.

China’s plan to generate 20 per cent of its power from non-fossil sources by 2030 implies a huge build-out in hydropower dams, nuclear power plants and subsidised wind and solar farms. Installed hydropower capacity is set to rise to 350 gigawatts by 2020, the end of the next five-year plan, compared with 290GW now, plus a possible additional 70GW in storage capacity — reservoirs created solely to counteract the sharp seasonal fluctuations in river flows that make hydropower extremely variable.

Installed hydro capacity by 2020 will be equivalent to the combined electricity-generating capacity of Germany, Spain and the UK.

Extensive dam-building in China over the past two decades has already exhausted the capacity of some rivers, including the Yellow river and its tributaries, which are now a “staircase” of adjacent reservoirs. Millions of people have been displaced to make way for the reservoirs, amid mass extinctions of fish and river dolphins.

The number of dams already built, however, limits the scope for future dam-building projects on most of China’s rivers.

“There is still potential to develop hydropower, but it won’t be on the same scale that we’ve seen in the past,” said Zou Ji of China’s National Center for Climate Change Strategy. “Large hydropower projects entail a lot of environmental risks and there are issues of emigration.”

Many of the new dams are expected to be concentrated along the relatively undeveloped Lancang, Yalong and Jinsha rivers in Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, in which rare species thrive in steep mountain valleys. The Lancang is the upper half of the Mekong, where dam-building both inside China and in Laos and Cambodia is changing the normal flood patterns that ensure the fertility of the Mekong Delta.

Only the Nu river in Yunnan, subject of a sustained environmental campaign in China, is likely to be spared for the time being. None of the 13 dams planned for that river has begun construction. The Nu becomes the Salween and forms the border between China and Myanmar.

Other intensive dam systems are planned for the Han river in central Hubei province, where they will accompany ambitious engineering plans to divert Yangtze river water to relieve shortages in the north and in arid Xinjiang along the central Asian frontier.

Such dams enable a steep rise in investment in heavy industry while threatening water supply to traditional farming oases. Additional industrial investment offsets the lower emissions of the dams themselves. In some cases, remote local governments construct additional coal-fired plants so that industries lured by the promise of cheap power to relocate to new dams do not lose access to energy when river flows ebb.

The economics of building dams in remote corners of China means transmission across thousands of miles to population centres, which by some estimates adds as much as 50 per cent to the cost of building the dams.

Distorted pricing policies that depress power costs in politically powerful cities further complicate any effort to analyse the real cost of the dams, according to Zhang Shuwei, energy analyst at the Draworld Environment Research Center in Beijing.

“The cost of electricity generation is not the same as the cost of using the electricity,” he said.

Additional Reporting by Owen Guo