China’s shaky water security is a serious problem for its central planners. Two years back a census revealed that 28,000 rivers disappeared over the previous 20 years, and some forty percent of the water that remains is too toxic for human consumption. From dead pigs to heavy metals to toxic slurries, China’s waterways are becoming as tainted as they are scarce, and its riparian management is clashing with its energy policy in some important ways.
First, one of the biggest green opportunities Beijing has at hand is handcuffed by the country’s water scarcity. China has the world’s largest reserves of shale gas (by a long shot), gas which emits roughly half of the the greenhouse gas emissions and a whole lot less of many other harmful pollutants than its dirtier cousin, coal. Beijing’s appetite for coal is enormous, but to the extent to which its able to tap those massive shale reserves, it could help clean up its environment and decrease its overall emissions. Unfortunately, fracking is a very water intensive process, and a lack of that resource is preventing China from capitalizing on the other.
China also hopes to decrease its emissions by damming more of its rivers, but that plan too carries a cost, as the FT reports:
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. […]
Extensive dam-building in China over the past two decades has already exhausted the capacity of some rivers, including the Yellow river and its tributaries, which are now a “staircase” of adjacent reservoirs. Millions of people have been displaced to make way for the reservoirs, amid mass extinctions of fish and river dolphins. […]
“By the end of the 13th five-year plan the rivers in southwest China will be basically gone,” said Stephanie Jensen-Cormier, spokeswoman for NGO International Rivers, referring to China’s industrial blueprint for the five years until 2020.
Beijing had the world’s greens in a tizzy last November when it joined the U.S. in announcing emissions reductions targets for 2030, but that initial ebullience has faded into a more cynical reality. The driving forces behind China’s more eco-friendly strategy are steeped in grittier calculus: a desire to placate growing unrest over endemic air pollution; a fear of growing dependence on foreign energy as coal is phased out; an interest in boosting the efficiency of the Chinese economy (especially relevant given this week’s stock crisis there).
Nowhere on that list is a deep, abiding love and respect for the planet, a fact reinforced by Beijing’s commitment to dam more of its rivers in the coming years. That doesn’t mean that the environment won’t benefit from China’s new outlook, but greens need to be careful not to draw the wrong conclusion from all of this. Malthusian brow-beating and hair-shirt hawking aren’t anywhere near as effective as arguments based in economic efficiency and energy security in achieving green ends.