Gu Suhua writes from Beijing: Ever been abroad when the lights went out? Very frustrating, isn’t it? You mutter to yourself about the inability of the natives to generate enough power to permit you to find the nearest bottle of gin. China has a problem, a big problem when it comes to electricity. The country is rapidly urbanising and this means the demand for power is going through the roof. So what do the leaders do to keep the lights on? About 80 per cent of electricity is generated from coal. But coal is a high carbon emission fuel. If the Middle Kingdom mines more coal and burns it, the world targets for reducing carbon emissions will not be reached. Indeed, the opposite will happen. Greenhouse gases will increase. The power sector accounts for about half of all CO2 emissions. However it is very inefficient. A terawatt of electricity in China produces about 70 per cent more CO2 emissions than a terawatt in the US.
China is always in the doghouse when countering climate change is discussed. Beijing says it is a developing country so cannot afford to introduce the targets set for rich countries. On the other hand, it is the most polluted country on earth. No wonder the first thing Chinese tourists say, before asking the way to Oxford Street, is how clean and fresh the air is in London.
So how does China generate more electricity without burning more coal? Bingo. It has found a solution: hydropower. The argument is that it is clean, sustainable and emission free. Unfortunately organic material from previously forested, but now flooded areas, decomposes and emits large amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Power plants in tropical areas can emit twice as much CO2 per unit of electricity as coal fired units. Damn it, there is always a sting in the tail.
Building huge dams has, of course, a negative effect on downstream agricultural activities. The Three Gorges Dam, on the Yangtze River, can be rated as one of the most unfortunate investment decisions of the last decade. It produces power for Shanghai and other cities. That is the good news. The bad news is that it led to the drying out of two of China’s largest freshwater lakes during the drought of 2011. A minimum level of water is necessary to generate electricity. Beijing had to order the managers of the dam to release water to alleviate the severe droughts downstream. About a thousand factories in Guizou had to close down because of lack of power.
Eighteen of Asia’s major international river basins originate in China. The Brahmaputra, the Mekong and Salween rivers have their source in the Middle Kingdom. Something like $136 billion may be invested in building dams along these and other rivers by 2020. This will have a major impact on the flow of water downstream to Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The political implications of this are not lost on China’s neighbours. The Indian press points out the dominant upper riparian position of the Chinese. They are capable of controlling these international rivers. The area around the Mekong river suffered severe drought in 2010 and the locals suspected that China had diverted water into its own rivers.
China is entering the international dam market in a big way. Companies, using the expertise gained in China, are now reaching out to Asia, Africa and Latin America. State banks provide the capital and the locals pay in kind.
The world is short of water. Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang are becoming dry zones so the country seeks to retain more of the water on its territory. Water can be called liquid gold. Beijing will use it to gain political advantage. Water will soon be traded as a commodity on world markets. Buy a water butt and collect as much as you can.