When Beijing counts hydropower as "green energy," it's doing the
environment -- and its economy -- no favor.
BY PETER BOSSHARD | Foreign Policy, MARCH 8, 2011
Next week, China's National People's Congress, which is now meeting in
Beijing, will formally adopt the country's next five-year plan. The
document will define the country's vision for the next half-decade,
including an increasingly desperate balancing act between economic
growth and environmental protection. At least 200 million Chinese will
join the urban middle class by the end of this decade, and the
government sees continued rapid growth as the best recipe for the
preservation of social stability. But at the same time, the country
bursts at the ecological seams. Lush forests have given way to dust
bowls and industrial wastelands. Plant and animal species are going
extinct at a rapid pace. Millions of people are being displaced from
lands that can no longer sustain them. Birth defects -- likely related
to exposure to polluted air, water, or food -- in some places reach 20
times the global average.
At first glance, the next five-year plan (or what has so far been shared
with the public) appears to be the greenest in China's history. On Feb.
27, Premier Wen Jiabao emphasized the new priorities in a
well-publicized Internet chat session: "We can no longer sacrifice the
environment for the sake of rapid development and reckless
construction.... These will only lead to overcapacity in production,
increased pressure on environmental resources, and unsustainable
economic growth." The five-year plan's expected provisions include
targets and financing to promote the rapid expansion of alternative
energy, and tighter limits for toxic pollutants, among other measures.
The new plan comes in the wake of notable environmental reforms that
Beijing has adopted in the last few years. At the 2009 climate summit in
Copenhagen, the Chinese government committed to reducing the carbon
intensity of China's economy, even though its greenhouse gas emissions
per capita are much lower than those of industrialized countries. The
government has funded the development of cheap, innovative
renewable-energy technologies. (Western countries could learn something
from the determination with which the Chinese government has lately
focused on developing the clean-tech sector.) The new five-year plan
proposes further financial incentives and technical improvements. Yet
this approach will not be sufficient to overcome the country's
China's great rivers illustrate the challenge that the country faces.
Chinese rulers have always seen controlling water as part of their
heavenly mandate. During the last 60 years, they have diverted rivers to
feed inefficient irrigation systems, abused them as sewage canals for
polluting industries, and choked them with more than 20,000 large dams.
As a consequence, rivers, lakes, and wetlands have dwindled, fisheries
are collapsing, water supplies have become unfit for human consumption,
and China's coastal areas are engulfed by toxic algae blooms every
summer. Moreover, dams have displaced at least 23 million people, and
according to Chinese-American scientists, one particular project, the
Zipingpu Dam, likely triggered the devastating earthquake that claimed
80,000 lives in Sichuan in 2008.
In response to the growing water crisis, the Chinese government has
successively strengthened its water protection laws and regulations over
the past 20 years. Yet the reality has not kept pace with such legal
changes. In collusion with local government officials, project
developers routinely flout environmental protection measures when they
impinge on economic growth. Jiang Gaoming, a professor of botany at the
Chinese Academy of Sciences, has charged that environmental impact
assessments for hydropower projects have become a "marginalized and
decorative process, seen as just a part of the cost of doing business."
In recent years, construction projects started at several large dams on
the Yangtze River even though their impact assessments had not yet been
approved. And this year, a government body simply redrew the boundaries
of a vitally important fish reserve on the same river to allow a midsize
hydropower project to go forward. The decision may sound the death knell
for the majestic Yangtze sturgeon and other migrating fish species.
According to an official of the local environmental protection bureau,
the dam was necessary "for the sake of economic growth."
The technical and engineering solutions that the new five-year plan
proposes will not bring relief for China's freshwater resources. For
instance, China's National Energy Administration has already announced
that new hydropower projects, which it considers a source of green
energy, will be approved to the tune of 140 gigawatts under the new
plan. (In comparison, the United States has installed just 80 gigawatts
of hydropower capacity in its entire history.) If the dam projects go
forward, they will destroy areas that even the government has called
"epicenter[s] of Chinese biodiversity." In addition, many dams are
scheduled to be built on the earthquake-prone fault lines that mark the
collision of the Indian and Eurasian plates.
The Chinese government hopes that the massive expansion of hydropower
will allow it to sustain rapid economic growth while it gradually shifts
away from fossil fuels. Yet the country already pays a high price for
the collapse of its freshwater ecosystems. Its dams have destroyed and
degraded freshwater resources on which hundreds of millions of people
depend. Around the world, rivers, lakes, and wetlands have undergone
more dramatic changes than any other type of ecosystem. The U.N.
Environment Program warns that "natural systems that support economies,
lives and livelihoods across the planet are at risk of rapid degradation
and collapse" and that it would be arrogant to "imagine we can get by
without biodiversity." If China's unprecedented dam-building spree is
approved by the National People's Congress, it will undermine the
foundations of the country's long-term prosperity.
China's new five-year plan essentially proposes to sacrifice the
country's arteries to save its lungs. This impasse illustrates that
China will not be able to engineer its way out of a mounting
environmental crisis. "Really improving the environment in China will
require revolutionary bottom-up political and economic reforms," writes
Elizabeth Economy, director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign
Relations. Civil society groups and the media should be free to report
on the state of the country's environment. Courts should be allowed to
go after well-connected companies that violate environmental
regulations. Schools should encourage the creative thinking that the
country needs to move away from polluting industries at the bottom of
the value chain. And as China's leaders chart their course for the next
five years, they should embrace the wider social reforms that are needed
for the protection of the environment.
Peter Bosshard is policy director of International Rivers, an
environmental and human rights organization. He works from Beijing and
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