The Controversial Implications of China’s Energy Plans

2 May

As the world’s second largest economy, and the world’s largest manufacturer, China has become a vast production giant, growing at an average of 9.6% GDP year on year. However for many sceptics China’s economic success appears to be too good to be true. And indeed they are right. The self-centred development plans of China’s leaders are having profound and negative consequences on China’s own population, China’s neighbours, and the global environment and small island states. Each of these implications in turn puts political pressures on the Chinese government.

The first two implications of China’s energy consumption concern its role in the Mekong Basin. As the map below shows, the Mekong basin is a resource shared between six countries: China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. Due to its abundant supply of freshwater fish, and the use of water for agriculture, the Mekong basin is a resource which the livelihoods of around 8 million people from each of the countries depend on.


China however, is posing a threat to the six countries surrounding the Mekong basin through their use of hydroelectric dams. These dams are shown in the diagram above. Unsurprisingly China’s reasons for building dams are purely self-motivated; they store water which can be converted to provide China with an essential source of hydroelectric energy. This helps ease the countries resource and energy instabilities. In theory, though, these dams are also supposed to monitor the flow of the water throughout the Mekong basin. This is achieved as they store water in the wetter periods and releasing water to the countries downstream during their dryer periods. However, the benefits of China’s controversial dams to the surrounding countries in the Mekong basin are increasingly being questioned today.

According to experts from the Wilson Centre, the promised effects are not being delivered downstream. Many countries in the lower Mekong basin are in fact experiencing losses of water to the dams which is not being counteracted in the drier seasons. In 2010 the water levels of downstream countries hit a 50 year low. Moreover, China’s numerous and voluminous dams are preventing the downstream migration of many of the fish species in the river, which is increasingly straining the ability of these fish to reach the millions of people who depend on fish as their primary source of protein. This is endangering their livelihoods.

In addition, as China is situated upstream of the river, any pollution which flows from Chinese power stations or industrial producers in to the basin, flows downstream into the rivers of countries which are situated in the lower Mekong. This significantly impacts on the quality of water downstream, and on the continued safety of the water from the river as a resource.

Clearly then, China’s actions are affecting the domestic security of the other countries sharing the Mekong basin. However, as the river is a collective resource, China is aware that only a Collective solution can solve the problems which it is creating. Moreover, China is so vast, and economically superior to those countries which are geographically situated below it, that it has been effectively able to act as it wishes without contestation. As such, the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party have been reluctant to engage the countries lower down the Mekong basin, with China still refusing membership of the Mekong River Commission while it continues to prioritise its own energy and development goals.

Another of the drastic consequences of China’s development and energy consumption plans concerns its domestic air pollution. This picture below shows the extent of this problem in China’s cities.


China’s air pollution is so severe that it is estimated to be directed linked to an excess of 1.2million deaths in 2010 alone. In several of the most industrialized cities within China, air pollution is so severe that it is almost impossible to see nearby buildings and signs. Arguably China’s leadership has finally appeared to show a level of concern about this issue, by pledging to pursue “sustainable development” in the future, rather purely economic development. Yet, this begs the question as to how much China’s leaders are prepared to scale back their economic plans in order to achieve better air quality and welfare for the country’s citizenship. China’s latest “sustainable development” manifesto sets its economic development bar at a 7% GDP growth rate. However, if China’s economic continues to grow and 7%, this is will inevitably cause more, rather than less, domestic pollution; albeit at a slower pace of growth than that of previous years. Whether China can and will continue to ignore the health of its citizens and its domestic environment for economic development means remains to be seen.

Finally, China’s vast energy consumption and development plans are taking a significant toll on the global environment. Over the last two years, greenhouse emissions around the globe have risen by 171%, and nearly 70% of this increase is directly attributable to China. As China’s economic consumption has risen, so too has its CO2 emission. These affects appear to have not concerned Chinese authorities enough to radically cap China’s coal consumption. China’s impact on global warming appears to be an unfortunate trade off in the countries development aims. For, such is China’s global power, that if it wished to seriously address the issue, it could arguably amass the power to manipulate a vote in the United Nations to address this issue, as China’s leaders have done on other controversial issues such as human rights. Yet limiting or capping CO2 emissions is clearly not in China’s interests.

However, the greenhouse gas output of China, poses serious and imminent threats to the livelihood and domestic security of a collection of small islands. These countries have formed an alliance to lobby on the issue; which is known as the “Alliance of Small Island States” (AOSIS). These countries have little protection against rising sea levels, and therefore their existence and sustainability is threatened by the actions of giant polluters, such as China, which contribute significantly to worldwide CO2 emissions and global warming. The AOSIS has lobbied for China and other large and influential countries alike, to change the global agenda in favour of protecting their domestic vulnerability to rising sea levels, however they have been unsuccessful.

Therefore China’s self-motivated energy consumption plans are increasingly threatening the livelihoods, and welfare of both China’s own citizens, and external citizens and countries. China has so far shown little openness for dialogue and compromise over these issues, however it must be questioned as to how long its leaders can continue to pursue their own energy plan without regard of its wider implications.


On China and the Mekong Basin:

Goh, Evelyn. “China in the Mekong River basin: the regional security implications of resource development on the Lancang Jiang.” (2009).

Baran, Eric, and Chris Myschowoda. “Dams and fisheries in the Mekong Basin.” Aquatic Ecosystem Health & Management 12.3 (2009): 227-234.

Barlow, Chris, et al. “How much of the Mekong fish catch is at risk from mainstream dam.” Catch and Culture 14.3 (2008).

Dugan, Patrick J., et al. “Fish migration, dams, and loss of ecosystem services in the Mekong basin.” Ambio 39.4 (2010): 344-348.

On China’s domestic pollution:

Chan, Chak K., and Xiaohong Yao. “Air pollution in mega cities in China.”Atmospheric environment 42.1 (2008): 1-42.

Xu, Xiping, et al. “Air pollution and daily mortality in residential areas of Beijing, China.” Archives of Environmental Health: An International Journal 49.4 (1994): 216-222.

On China Global CO2 emissions and Small island states

Peters, Glen P., et al. “Rapid growth in CO2 emissions after the 2008-2009 global financial crisis.” Nature Climate Change 2.1 (2011): 2-4.


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