Jul 06 2016

Settling for the Lesser of Two Evils?

Published by under Student blog entries

The spotlight is on China to make a shift in their energy mix and reduce carbon emission. China consumes more energy than any other country in the world, and their energy demand is expected to increase. This leaves the country with some difficult decisions concerning energy demand and emissions goals.

In 2014, China made its first-ever commitment to reduce its total emissions by the year 2030. This was very exciting news, given that the country’s carbon emissions are the largest in the world. At the turn of the century China’s emissions started to skyrocket, due mostly to one form of energy production: coal.

2826748848_32385b15bf_z (Source: bkking111, Flickr)

China produced 3.24 billion metric tons of coal in 2010, which made up 76.5% of the countries energy mix. This percentage has decreased over the last few years, in large part because of the construction of many hydropower plants. As of 2015, the country is producing 1,126,000 GWh of power from hydroelectric dams, with the installed capacity even greater. This is great news for China and the world, but it still isn’t time to throw your hands up and celebrate.

6877464855_4f4ce99021_z The massive Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in China. (Source: Marshal Segal, Flickr)

Generating energy from hydroelectric dams is almost undeniably better than burning coal, but it is by no means perfect — especially when hydropower plants are huge. Dams can have significant negative effects on the natural environment of a river or other body of water. Restricting the natural flow of water can have adverse effects on transportation down river, as well as fresh water availability for public use. Fish and other water species that live near a dam may be restricted from flowing up river to spawn in their normal environment. The construction of dams can often cause people to need to relocate, disrupting their livelihoods and minimizing their culture. Hydropower generation is perceived as having little to no emissions, but releasing larger quantities of water at one time can disturb the riverbed and release methane and other gases that were being stored.

These are some of the arguments that environmentalists in China are making to restrict the government from building new dams on the Nu River. The author of the New York Times article “China’s Last Wild River Carries Conflicting Environmental Hopes” discusses the latest in this decade-long fight to keep the Nu River a pristine environment. The Chinese government has recently stated that construction of dams would be halted and instead the river and its surroundings would be made into a national park.

5705460414_58bae63bf7_z The Nu River. (Source: International Rivers, Flickr)

There are many skeptics that are not accepting this as a victory quite yet. This is understandable, given that the government ordered to stop construction on the dams in 2013 in order to assess the impact of the development. Construction not only continued, but the government also tried to hide their intentions from the public.

The future of the Nu River may continue to be disputed, but China will need to make decisions soon to keep up with energy demand. This won’t be an easy task with the global pressure on China to reduce the use of coal. China could be setting an example for developing countries and the rest of the world, though it is unclear if it will be positive.

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