Even as China’s leadership promises an eventual transition into a renewable energy future, the country’s monumental economic growth is predicated on the availability of a vast supply of cheap energy. Brothers Adrian and Clarence Leong from Hong Kong delve into some key issues in this article for a better understanding of the downsides of China’s green industry.
Adrian and Clarence Leong
In her hands, China holds two records which sit uncomfortably together – she is both the world’s largest investor in the renewable energy sector and the world’s largest polluter. She invested a record-level $89 billion in renewable energy projects in 2014, up 31% from 2013. At the same time, the total amount of emissions coming from China’s motor vehicles, power plants, factories and boilers account for 29% of the world’s total – double that of the U.S..
As far as hard fact goes, China’s story with the environment is an amalgam of contradictions.
For starters, history provides us with examples of rulers who held drastically different attitudes (1) towards the environment. The legendary Yu the Great (大禹) was chosen by his predecessor based on his ability to co-exist with nature by taming the floods on the Yangtze River, some four millennia ago. Contrastingly, Mao Zedong, founder of the People’s Republic of China, swept to power because he could galvanise his fellow countrymen with a socialist utopia vision that would later on blitz the nation’s cultural heritage and ecology (Judith Shapiro’s Mao’s War Against Nature is an in-depth study on the topic). Young Mao ominously wrote, “To struggle against the earth is endless joy.” (與天鬥，其樂無窮。)
Mao Zedong: “To struggle against the earth is endless joy.” (與天鬥，其樂無窮。)
The case of green industry is not much different either. China can boast of being the largest producer of hydropower and second-largest in wind. She (2) is set to double her solar panel production by 2017, and is well-positioned to overtake Germany as the largest solar user by as early as the end of this year. In addition, China is building the largest ultra-high-voltage transmission system in the world to connect the sparsely-populated wind-rich regions in the north-west to the populous and energy-hungry central and eastern provinces.
Yet, critics will tell you that hydro, wind and solar power combined only took up 9% of total primary energy consumption in 2013. Coal, the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, still accounted for a staggering 67%. Even more committed environmentalists will tell you that one should never equate “renewable energies” with “good for the environment” too casually, as the case of Chinese hydropower will make clear.
China is wasting as much as 1 trillion kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity in total annual output, according to Zhang Boting, deputy secretary-general of the China Hydropower Society. That is enough electricity to power 5 Spains, or 40 Scotlands. Much of the wasted hydropower is located in the southwestern regions of Sichuan and Yunnan, where many dams are left idle, or are forced to release water, simply because the current grid systems are not built to absorb all that electricity and are not interconnected enough to transport it across the country.
Part of this is playing out in a broader scheme of political wrangling between the provincial and central government. Take Yunnan for example, the provincial government has been reluctant to export its surplus hydropower on a “point-to-grid” basis and prefer “grid-to-grid” instead, because the former method would circumvent a layer of taxation payable to the Yunnan government. The latter method would have the power first fed into the provincial grid before being sold to the regional grid, thereby creating a profit margin which is taxable.
Hydraulic Energy Impacts
The State Grid Corporation has built long-distance, ultra-high voltage lines that shipped 100 billion kWh across the country last year, but it privileges central government-administered plants such as the Three Gorges and leaves the power from less prestigious projects stranded. Local power demand used to take double-digit leaps (3), but the increase is now considerably slower. As a result, provincial governments have tried to develop power-hungry industries in a bid to push up local power usage, creating a vicious cycle of power-driven environmental degradation. The wasted hydropower is compensated for by burning a hundred million tonnes of coal every year.
Not only that, but the massively intrusive act of dam construction also serves local official’s economic imperative. Dams are hugely lucrative projects. As popular saying goes, in China’s engineering industry: “buildings are made of grass, roads silver, bridges gold, and dams diamond”. Consequently, all the major rivers in China have been, or are being, transformed into “great staircases” made up of reservoirs and cascades that can generate hydropower. As of 2013, there are some 130 dams spread across China’s southwest. On the Yangtze and its tributaries, there are 100 dams that are in various stages of construction or planning. This is what is now dubbed the “hydro-industrial complex”.
It will be almost impossible to talk about the dam building situation in China without mentioning the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze, because it has served as a model for mega-dam projects which are not only replicated domestically, but exported elsewhere ever since. Starting operation in 2008, the world’s largest hydropower project has set a record for the number of people displaced (more than 1.2m) and cities flooded (13 cities, 140 towns, 1,350 villages). It caused the submergence (imagine Atlantis, only a lot more polluted) of hundreds of factories, mines and waste dumps, creating a “festering bog of effluent, silt, industrial pollutants and rubbish” in the reservoir.
At what costs are these projects to generate low-emission electricity pursued? The ghastly environmental devastation and human rights violations involved suggest that self-interests weigh much heavier than the conviction to provide clean energy in the minds of those who turn these fantastical for-profit ideas into a reality.
Chinese banks and companies are now the biggest builders and financiers of dam-building projects worldwide. They are involved in 330 dams in 74 countries, according the most recent count by International Rivers, particularly in Africa and Southeast Asia. It has been said about this and other kinds of Chinese ventures that they condone rather than try to rectify the existing corrupt practises in countries which receive their investments.
An example is the Bakun Dam in Sarawak, Malaysia. It is the largest dam in Asia outside of China. The project is a collaboration between the Malaysian government and Chinese state-owned Sinohydro, with support from the China Export Import Bank. It began operation in 2011, when its reservoir submerged 700 square kilometres of farmland and forests. It also caused the displacement of more than 10,000 people, who has lost their traditional livelihoods.
Poor planning and rushed environmental impact assessment have dire consequences. Only after it was built did they discover that, of the 2,400 MV electricity produced, only 972 MV is demanded. Only after it was built did they find out that, due to a surrounding environment of uncleared vegetation and chemical runoff from nearby palm oil plantations, the Bakun reservoir has turned highly acidic. Four turbines in the powerhouse have been heavily corroded, and the potent methane emitted by the reservoir can be smelled kilometres away.
Similar structural problems plague other forms of renewable energies in China. In early June, the Chinese government published a set of guidelines to prohibit wind-farms to be built in regions where waste exceeds 20%. China’s installed on-grid (4) wind capacity was 76 GW at the end of 2013, yet the absolute wind power capacity stood at 91 GW, representing a shortage of transmission infrastructure.
As for solar energy, a study published last year found that the environmental footprint of a made-in-China solar panel is two times that of a European variation. The lax regulations around how companies may dispose of the toxic by-product from the production process, polysilicon – which includes a liquid called “silicon tetrachloride,” for example – explain the competitive pricing of made-in-China solar panels.
Where does this leave us in assessing a country that many agree can make or break any global effort in combating climate change?
The past year has seen China setting out plans to reduce carbon emissions. In a “historic joint announcement” with the United States last November, China pledged to peak carbon emissions by 2030 and double the share of zero-carbon energy from 11% to 20%. Last month, when Prime Minister Li Keqiang met with French President François Hollande, he set a new goal for a cut in carbon intensity from its 2005 level by 60 to 65% by 2030.
Nonetheless, to judge the progress of climate change action on the single criterion of carbon emission reduction alone is like not seeing the wood for the trees (5). As the case of China’s renewable energy industry has shown, carbon emission reductions may be achieved at great, often irreversible, costs to the environment. It also happens that renewable energy projects such as hydropower plants are pursued because they are lucrative. Considerations for the environment or operational efficiency are secondary concerns at best.
For each step that China has taken in the direction of lowering greenhouse gas emissions, the resulted environmental damage, pollution, inefficiencies and human displacement have only dragged her backwards. If this keeps happening, the story of her fight against climate change will continue to be a Sisyphean task. What’s worse, it’s the inhabitants of the land and nature that will ultimately pay the price.
- Definition: to have a point of view.
- Example: “[…] rulers who held drastically different attitudes towards the environment” (“[…] gobernantes que mantuvieron posiciones radicalmente diferentes hacia el medio ambiente”.)
- Translation: mantener una posición/actitud.
- Comment: This is a formal register to say to have a point of view.
- Definition: to spring through the air from one point or position to another; jump (over).
- Example: “Local power demand used to take double-digit leaps” (“La demanda de energía local solía hacer saltos de dos dígitos, pero ahora el aumento es considerablemente mucho más lento.”)
- Translation: saltar.
- Definition: available power on the grid.
- Example: “China’s installed on-grid wind capacity was 76 GW at the end of 2013, yet the absolute wind power capacity stood at 91 GW, representing a shortage of transmission infrastructure”. (“La energía eléctrica eólica en la red china era de 76 GW a finales de 2013, a pesar de que la capacidad total para esta energía era de 91 GW“).
- Translation: en la red.
- Definition: If someone can’t see the wood for the trees, they are not looking at the bigger picture. They cannot understand what is important in a situation because they are concentrating too much on fine details.
- Translation: “Nonetheless, to judge the progress of climate change action on the single criterion of carbon emission reduction alone is like seeing the wood for the trees” (“No obstante, juzgar el progreso de las actuaciones para ayudar a frenar el cambio climático teniendo solo en cuenta la reducción de emisiones de carbono, es como ver los árboles pero no el bosque entero.”)