Some less desirable consequences of China’s climate-change commitments

The excellent Lucy Hornby at the FT has a good piece pointing out one reason why not everyone is happy with the fact that China is strengthening its commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions:

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. … 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.

The fact that hydropower development in China now seems to have very strong renewed momentum is interesting. There was actually a period of several years when it looked like a public backlash had slowed development of new large dams. I’ve had an interest in the subject since 2007, when as a WSJ reporter I wrote the following piece after a trip to a disputed dam site in Sichuan:

Seeking to control floods and produce clean energy, China’s central planners have presided over a relentless dam-building drive: The country’s 22,000 large dams represent nearly half the world’s total. But growing numbers of Chinese citizens are criticizing the environmental and social upheaval caused by the structures… Dams have emerged as one of the few legitimate subjects of vigorous public debate, one that’s testing the limits of the public’s role in shaping policy in this authoritarian country. Beyond Dujiangyan, other proposed dams in places like Tibet have been put on hold, or scaled back, after public outcry.

So much for that. A related development is the renewed enthusiasm for building nuclear power plants, another energy source that does not emit carbon dioxide. While nuclear plants haven’t been the same kind of magnet for popular protest that dams have been, there are a few lonely critics who worry that safety and regulation are not keeping up. Which seems like a not unreasonable concern, in a country where “independent regulator” is an oxymoron. Here’s Emma Graham-Harrison in The Guardian back in May:

China’s plans for a rapid expansion of nuclear power plants are “insane” because the country is not investing enough in safety controls, a leading Chinese scientist has warned. Proposals to build plants inland, as China ends a moratorium on new generators imposed after the Fukushima disaster in March 2011, are particularly risky, the physicist He Zuoxiu said, because if there was an accident it could contaminate rivers that hundreds of millions of people rely on for water and taint groundwater supplies to vast swathes of important farmlands.

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