China gets power sums wrong
By Sabine Johnson-Reiser
China's Jinsha River, literally the "Golden Sands" River, could soon
live up to its rich name. The approximately 2,300-kilometer long
upstream section of the Yangtze River is the site of up to 25 planned
large-scale (50 megawatt and above) hydropower projects.
China's state-run hydropower companies, local governments, and energy-
hungry cities in the more developed, eastern provinces stand to profit
from hydropower construction and electricity generation. Driven by
Beijing's energy and climate goals, this new dam building rush,
however, will reduce China's climate change adaptation capacity and
hurt relationships with neighboring countries without providing the
emission-free electricity Beijing is seeking.
China's status as the world's largest carbon-dioxide (CO2) emitter has
put increasing pressure-both domestic and international-on Beijing to
curb national emissions. In response, the government has laid out a
set of binding targets in the 12th Five Year Plan: an 11.4% increase
in the use of non-fossil fuel in primary energy consumption; a 16%
decrease in energy consumption per unit of gross domestic product
(GDP); and a 17% decrease in CO2 emissions per unit of GDP by 2015 .
Now, China is looking for sources of clean, emission-free and
sustainable electricity to fulfill ever-growing demand and meet
renewable energy and emission targets. More large scale hydropower is
wrongly thought to be one such source. Consequently, dozens of
projects are planned or already under construction on a number of
rivers, including 26 on the Lancang, headwater of the Mekong, 13 on
the Nu, headwater of the Salween, and 28 on the Yarlung Tsangpo, the
headwater of the Brahmaputra.
Addressing China's power sector - a major contributor to national
greenhouse gas emissions - is critical to reaching Beijing's emission
targets. A terawatt hour (TWh) of electricity generated in China
produces on average 70% more CO2 emissions than
a TWh generated in the United States,
and China's power sector accounted for almost 50% of the country's CO2
emissions in 2009. Developments in the power sector therefore will
have a significant impact on the country's emission trajectory.
The high carbon-intensity of China's electricity is due to the
sector's heavy reliance on coal, a very carbon-intensive fuel that is
used to generate around 80% of China's electricity. Hydropower
accounts for 16% of the country's electricity generation with nuclear,
wind and solar making up the remainder. Hydropower advocates argue
that shifting the energy mix from carbon-intensive coal to more
hydropower would benefit China's emission targets.
This argument relies on the still widespread "clean, sustainable and
emission-free hydropower" narrative. Even the United Nations Framework
Convention on Climate Change tacitly supports this misconception by
making reports of greenhouse gas emissions from dam reservoirs
Studies however have shown that hydropower can be a major source of
greenhouse gas. Organic material from previously forested, but now
flooded land and washed up debris, accumulates and decomposes in the
dam reservoirs, thereby releasing large amounts of methane, a potent
This problem particularly affects hydropower projects in tropical
areas, where the vegetation is generally denser and more organic
material is accumulated in reservoirs. Some hydropower facilities in
tropical areas emit up to twice as much carbon dioxide per unit of
electricity as coal fired power plants .
As most of China's planned hydropower projects are located in densely
forested, subtropical southern and southwestern provinces, new dam
reservoirs are likely to become significant emission sources.
Making adaptation harder
The 12th Five Year Plan also addresses climate change adaptation
strategies. Beijing wants to strengthen the country's "capacity to
cope with extreme climate incidents," thereby enhancing China's
climate change adaptation capacity . Yet, the construction of more
dams will decrease China's capacity to cope with extreme climate
incidents, which are predicted to include more-frequent and more-
severe record floods and droughts .
First, the impacts of large-scale dams on wetlands and human
settlement patterns limit China's adaptation capacity - the ability to
moderate potential damages or cope with the consequences of climate
change - as they expose millions of people to climate change related
To maximize power production, dams store water during the wet season
and release it during the dry season. This alteration of natural river
flow patterns impacts the health of natural flood storage systems,
such as downstream wetlands, lakes and marshes, often leading to their
disappearance. Thus, dams reduce the frequency of smaller floods, but
also decrease or eliminate wetlands' natural capacity to absorb water
and thus mitigate severe floods.
In addition, dams enable the conversion of wetlands to agricultural
farmland and provide downstream cities with electricity and water for
irrigation, industrial and household purposes, enabling and
encouraging their development and growth.
Hydropower development therefore contributes to population growth in
downstream areas, which simultaneously increases the number of people
at risk of dam failure as changing precipitation patterns could lead
to floods that may exceed the storage capacity of dams upstream.
The controversial Three Gorges Dam is a case in point. With a capacity
of 22.5 GW, the dam can generate up to 84.7 billion kWh of electricity
for cities in central, southern and eastern China, including the
downstream metropolis of Shanghai. While its reservoir supplied the
population in the middle and lower Yangtze with a steady source of
water, it also contributed to the drying up of Dongting and Poyang
Lake, two of China's largest freshwater lakes, during the 2011 drought.
Although the dam withstood its first major flood test in 2010, whether
the Three Gorges Dam will be able to contain future, possibly worse,
floods is uncertain\. If it fails, downstream residents will not be
able to rely on natural floodplains to mitigate the impact with
possibly disastrous consequences for life and property.
Second, the operation of large-scale dams exacerbates droughts in
downstream areas. In theory, reservoirs could provide short-term
drought relief, by releasing stored water for use downstream. Yet,
below a certain water level, the primary objective of hydropower
operators-maximizing electricity generation-suffers.
The fact that the central government had to order the China Three
Gorges Corporation to release water from the reservoir to alleviate
the severe drought downstream in 2011 suggests that hydropower
operators are likely to put power generation
ahead of drought relief.
Third, dams make it harder for coastal cities to adapt to rising sea
levels. As freshwater is held back in reservoirs upstream, natural
water outflows at river deltas are reduced, contributing to a fall in
coastal groundwater tables. Combined with rising sea levels, this
makes coastal delta regions more susceptible to saltwater intrusion,
which contaminates coastal freshwater aquifers and makes water unfit
for human consumption .
More dams could exacerbate future saltwater intrusion challenges for
many coastal Chinese cities brought on by rising sea levels. Shanghai,
located in the Yangtze River Delta, is already experiencing saltwater
intrusion, which research has linked to variations in water discharge
from the Three Gorges Dam .
Lastly, the expensive and long-lasting nature of hydropower
infrastructure makes it difficult or impossible to adapt them to
future changes in the environment,
agricultural and economic activities and human settlement patterns.
Large-scale dam construction is very costly. The record-setting Three
Gorges Dam cost approximately $25 billion. Even smaller projects like
the planned Xiaonanhai Dam on the Upper Yangtze cost up to $5.6
billion. China Post Securities analyst Shao Minghui estimates the
hydropower sector will need around $136 billion in infrastructure
investment by 2020.
The sheer size of this kind of investments often prompts path
dependency - the preference to continue even if better
alternatives are available - as
investors look to realize promised returns on investment, and local
governments are unwilling to admit that there may have been better
Furthermore, the design of hydropower dams is based on historical and
current river flows. While their lifespan ranges from 50 to 100 years,
climate change is likely to alter future river flows within decades.
Modifications to existing large-scale dams to accommodate these
changes, however, are either technically infeasible or very expensive.
Dried up rivers or changing river courses could turn dams into
stranded assets, because they, unlike solar or wind installations,
cannot be moved.
A drought in 2011 caused a 28% reduction in hydropower output,
resulting in 1,000 factories and companies in Guizhou suspending
operations and showing even temporary reductions in water flows can
result in significant power shortages.
Damming international relationships
China's dam-building rush will have negative impacts on relationships
with neighboring countries. Furthermore, national hydropower
companies' overseas venture may harm China's international reputation.
China's territory encompasses parts of 18 of Asia's major
international river basins. Moreover, China's position along these
river basins is predominantly upstream, and, in the case of the
Brahmaputra, the Mekong, and the Salween, at the source.
Hydropower development in China therefore has international impact,
and affects China's relationships with its downstream riparian
neighbors, including Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Laos, Myanmar,
Thailand and Vietnam. The construction of cascades of large-scale
hydropower dams along rivers in China's territory affects the water
quantity and quality downstream. While the exact extent of these dams'
negative impact on water availability, fish populations and
consequently downstream populations may be unknown, the existence of
such effects is certain.
Upstream dams also provide some control over the timing and amount of
water flow in the rivers affected. People downstream therefore may
feel that Beijing, rather than nature, controls their water and their
Admittedly, upstream China does not control the entire water flow of
these rivers as water volumes generally increase along
the river. Yet, as river basins are
highly complex, and the precise amounts of water inflows at particular
sections are hard to measure, citizens of countries downstream may
perceive China to be in full control.
Indian newspapers, for example, write of China's "superior upper
riparian positions" and "unique position of controlling international
rivers," and suspect the country of secretly diverting water from the
Yarlung-TsangpoRiver. In 2010, when severe drought hit the Mekong,
farmers and fishermen in countries downstream blamed China and its
hydropower stations for the disaster, despite China's assurance that
it collected only "4% of the river's water".
Regardless of the validity of these suspicions, given China's
geographic position, more hydropower construction will further strain
relationships with already apprehensive neighbors and nations
Furthermore, for about a decade now, Chinese state-run hydropower
companies have increasingly looked abroad to market
the experience and technology gained in
domestic projects. More domestic dam building is likely to make these
companies even more internationally competitive as they gain further
technical expertise and financial resources. Yet, the nature of many
of these overseas ventures may harm China's international image.
As Europe and North America have turned away from the construction of
large dams, Chinese companies armed with newfound skills have sought
projects in other Asian, African and South American nations-many of
which lack strong legal and political institutions, environmental and
regulatory oversight and suffer from corruption and instability.
Chinese banks and companies currently are involved in about 300
projects in 66 countries, including Angola, Myanmar, Cambodia,
Ethiopia, Iran, Sierra Leone and Sudan. Due to these problems, many of
the projects are high risk, involve human rights violations by local
governments and fail to be built according to international
environmental and safety standards. In the long run, this reflects
negatively upon Chinese companies and ultimately the country as a whole.
The Myitsone Dam on the Irrawaddy in Myanmar illustrates this point.
Located in Kachin State, home to a strong separatist movement and site
of frequent, armed clashes between the Burmese military and the Kachin
Independence Army, the project was supposed to be financed and built
by the China Power Investment Corporation, before President Thein Sein
suspended it in 2011.
Myitsone holds a special cultural and religious significance for the
Kachin, who revere the area as the birthplace of their culture. Should
construction move forward, the result is likely to be viewed as a
symbol of China's lack of cultural sensibilities and disregard for
local minority groups.
Beijing's focus on hydropower to achieve energy and emission targets
largely ignores or downplays large-scale dams' negative impacts on the
climate, the country's adaptation ability and relations with neighbors
as well as China's international reputation. Yet, there are a range of
alternatives to large dams.
Greater focus on energy efficiency could provide huge energy savings.
For example, China's cement industry alone could achieve primary
energy savings of 23% through the implementation of international best
In the power sector, the government could accelerate its efforts to
replace small, inefficient power plants, with more efficient
supercritical and ultra-supercritical power plants, as well as
combined heat and electricity cogeneration plants. More efficient
appliances and lighting could reduce household electricity
consumption, a growing part of China's total consumption. This could
be achieved through programs similar to Energy Star in the United
Additionally, all existing alternative energy infrastructure should be
connected to the power grid. As of 2011, 30% of China's wind power
capacity, for example, was not yet connected to the grid.
At the end of 2008, small hydropower plants numbered 50,000, many of
which were built decades ago and are equipped with outdated,
inefficient technology. Prior to building new projects, existing
infrastructure should be surveyed, and where
necessary retrofitted with new
technology to be more productive.
While less impressive in scale than highly visible mega-dams, these
alternatives could alleviate expected energy shortages, and help
Beijing achieve its targets without the negative consequences and
future risks associated with large-scale dams.
1. Twelfth Five Year Plan, available in Chinese here and English here.
2. William Steinhurst, Patrick Knight, and Melissa Schultz, Hydropower
Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Cambridge, MA: Synapse Energy Economics,
February 14, 2012.
4. China's Policies and Actions for Addressing Climate Change,
Information Office of the State Council of the People's Republic of
China, October 2008.
5. Lester Brown, Eco-Economy: Building and Economy for the Earth, New
York : W.W. Norton, 2001, especially Chapter 2.
6. Qiang An, Yanqing Wu, Shauna Taylor and Bin Zhao, Influence of the
Three Gorges Dam on Saltwater Intrusion in the Yangtze Estuary,
Environmental Geology, No. 56, 2009, pp. 1679- 1686.
7. Lynn Price, Ali Hasanbeigi, Hongyou Lu, and Wang Lan, Analysis of
Energy-Efficiency Opportunities for the Cement Industry in Shandong
Province, China, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, October 2009.
Sabine Johnson-Reiser is a junior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for
International Peace's Energy and Climate program. Her research focuses
on Chinese energy and climate policies. The views expressed in this
article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the
views of the Carnegie Endowment.
(This article first appeared in The Jamestown Foundation. Used with
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