As outlined in China’s national climate plan, submitted to the United Nations last month, the country’s aim to peak greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 or sooner will rely heavily on a shift from coal to use of non-fossil fuels. To many, that would seem a clear win for the environment in coastal megacities and mining areas, where air, water and soil pollution are a potent toxic legacy of China’s long-term addiction to fossil coal. But China’s target to use non-fossil fuel sources for around 20% of its primary energy consumption by 2030 will likely prompt a fresh round of dam building in ecologically fragile Tibetan regions of China, particularly in impoverished western areas.Hydropower is responsible for far fewer greenhouse gas emissions than coal. But shifting away from coal in favour of water-driven electricity entails major risks.
These include the low generating efficiency of hydropower, heightening the need for back-up coal power during sustained periods of low rainfall, weak grid systems and potential for large dams on international rivers to spark conflict with neighbouring countries.
Hydropower – a green saviour?
Hydropower is China’s second-largest energy source after coal and the country’s installed hydropower capacity is set to rise to 350 gigawatts (GW) by 2020, up from 300 GW today. The country is already home to half the world’s 80,000 dams, more than the US, Brazil and Canada combined.
Chinese authorities hope that a large-scale rollout of hydropower can help reduce toxic smog that has triggered public outrage and health scares both at home and abroad.
Hydropower has already helped slow growth in China’s greenhouse gas emissions, some experts claim. China’s coal use fell by nearly 8% in the first four months of this year – in part, says Greenpeace, due to power fed into the grid by hydro plants since brought online.
“Hydropower is one of the main ways for the power sector to replace fossil fuels, save energy and reduce emissions,” points out Zhang Boting, deputy secretary general of the China Society for Hydropower Engineering.
China is already the largest dam builder in the world, but its vast hydropower resources are underdeveloped compared with its potential, meaning the country is overwhelmingly reliant on coal, says Zhang.
If China exploited its remaining hydropower resources it could meet a fifth of China’s peak energy demand and displace about 1.3 billion tonnes of coal, he adds.
The most enthusiastic advocates of new dams in China say the country can almost double its current hydropower capacity to 540 GW by 2050.
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