Quantcast

Hydropower Will Undermine COP21 as 'False Solution' to Climate Change

Climate

"Big hydroelectric dams are a false solution because of the methane." — Randy Hayes, Oct. 8, Denver, Colorado

Over the past 15 years, the “methane problem" with hydropower has made minor blips in international news and has just begun to infiltrate the discussion of how it is wrong to use hydropower as a solution to fight climate change.


The non-profit environmental group International Rivers has spearheaded much of the education and advocacy, and scientific journals as well as climate-related news sites like Climate Central are also taking up the case. Hydropower has been called a “methane factory" and “methane bomb" that is just beginning to rear its ugly head as a major source of greenhouse gas emissions that have so-far been unaccounted for in climate change discussions and analyses.

Scientific studies indicate that methane emissions from hydropower dams and reservoirs can vary dramatically. In northern subarctic climates, methane emissions have been measured as a small fraction of greenhouse gas emissions as compared to coal-fired power plants. In temperate climates like much of the U.S. and Europe, methane emission measurements vary by sub-climate, size of reservoir and vegetation growth, but have been measured from small to large as compared to the emissions from coal-fired power plants. In tropical environments, hydropower methane emissions have been measured as high as double those of the greenhouse emissions of a coal-fired power plant that generates the same amount of electricity.

Further, although the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has guidelines on calculating methane emissions from hydropower dams/reservoirs, there have been very few measurements of these methane emissions at the same time that large hydropower projects are being built by the thousands across the planet. One Brazilian scientist estimates that methane from hydropower currently accounts for 23 percent of all human-caused worldwide methane emissions. As hydropower plants proliferate, that number will only increase.

Hydropower is almost always greenwashed and sold to the public and policymakers as “clean energy" and “carbon-free." Even though the IPCC lists hydropower's methane emissions as a greenhouse gas source, and over a decade of science refutes the claim that hydropower is clean energy, the myth of carbon-free hydropower is embedded in the Kyoto Protocol's “Clean Development Mechanism" to address planetary climate change and is increasingly being implemented by countries in attendance at COP 21 in Paris. Even worse, the World Bank still lists, promotes and funds hydropower as “clean energy," and nearly every country in the world is building hydropower plants under the same auspices. Even the U.S. government still perpetuates the anti-science myth of clean hydropower.

In the lead-up to COP 21, countries have been sending their “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs)" to the United Nations. An INDC is a description of how each country intends to reduce its carbon emissions.

Let's look at five quick, random examples out of the 181 INDCs sent to the United Nations so far:

1. China is in the midst of building dozens of massive hydropower plants per year, including the largest on the planet. In its INDC, China states they intend to: “proactively promote the development of hydro power, on the premise of ecological and environmental protection and inhabitant resettlement."

2. India's INDC uses hydropower to meet its emission reduction target, and states: “With a vast potential of more than 100 GW, a number of policy initiatives and actions are being undertaken to aggressively pursue development of country's vast hydro-potential."

3. Japan's INDC states that it intends to reach its “emissions reduction target" in part by getting to nine percent hydropower by 2030. Japan has dozens of currently operating hydropower plants with dozens more in the planning stages.

4. Canada's INDC states that it will use “low-impact hydro" as one of its “investments to encourage the generation of electricity from renewable energy" Canada has dozens of new hydropower dams under construction, and few if any are even remotely considered “low-impact hydro."

5. Costa Rica's INDC boasts: “Costa Rica has a long standing tradition of innovation on hydroelectric generation, in conservation and specially, on matters of climate change." Costa Rica routinely markets itself as having a nearly carbon-free energy system, with more than 80 percent percent coming from hydropower—with absolutely none of the methane emissions measured or accounted for in its INDC—and is just finishing construction of the largest hydropower dam in Central America.

What's even more problematic is that many of the countries around the world that are most aggressively pursuing hydropower don't even list it in their INDC, but rather state they are using the 2006 IPCC Guidelines for National Greenhouse Gas Inventories to calculate their emissions and their reductions in emissions by using various energy types.

Take Indonesia as just one example, which has built and is continuing to build dozens of massive hydropower dams. In their INDC, Indonesia does not mention hydropower, stating that they will meet emissions reductions and that: “The inventory is based on 2006 IPCC Guideline for National Greenhouse Gas inventories."

I have deep skepticism about whether these countries are using the guidelines correctly, because even in 2006, the guidelines contained methane emissions calculations from dams and reservoirs, including the “CH4 [methane] Emissions From Flooded Lands" appendix to chapter four, which contains specific calculations for methane emissions upstream and downstream of dams. Thus, countries that are completely destroying their rivers and their climate with hydropower including Malaysia, Brazil, Guatemala, Russia and even the U.S. don't even list hydropower as a methane emissions source in their INDC, while including hydropower as a clean energy source, all under the auspices of likely misconstrued or purposely ignored IPCC guidelines.

How bad could it get? The Eastern European Balkan countries have recently announced they want to build 2,700 hydropower dams and every single one is being touted as a clean energy alternative to fight climate change.

As the world cartwheels towards COP 21, there are many reasons why scientists and advocates have little faith that the negotiations will yield consequential results to fight climate change. The lack of information about the methane emissions from hydropower, the apparent lack of enforcement of the IPCC guidelines and the ruse of calling hydropower “clean energy" are just more issues in the long list of problems with COP 21.

If we continue to ignore methane emissions from hydropower, we won't just be miscalculating greenhouse gas emissions, we will be miscalculating the likely devastating impacts climate change will have on the planet.

Gary Wockner, PhD, is an international environmental activist and writer based in Colorado where he also works to protect the Colorado and Cache la Poudre Rivers. You can contact him here: Gary@GaryWockner.com.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Rebecca Burgess came up with the idea of a fibersheds project to develop an eco-friendly, locally sourced wardrobe. Nicolás Boullosa / CC BY 2.0

By Tara Lohan

If I were to open my refrigerator, the origins of most of the food wouldn't be too much of a mystery — the milk, cheese and produce all come from relatively nearby farms. I can tell from the labels on other packaged goods if they're fair trade, non-GMO or organic.

Read More Show Less
A television crew reports on Hurricane Dorian while waves crash against the Banana River sea wall. Paul Hennessy / SOPA Images / LightRocket / Getty Images

By Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope

Some good news, for a change, about climate change: When hundreds of newsrooms focus their attention on the climate crisis, all at the same time, the public conversation about the problem gets better: more prominent, more informative, more urgent.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
U.S. Senators Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Mike Braun (R-Ind.) met with Bill Gates on Nov. 7 to discuss climate change and ways to address the challenge. Senator Chris Coons

The U.S. Senate's bipartisan climate caucus started with just two members, a Republican from Indiana and a Democrat from Delaware. Now it's up to eight members after two Democrats, one Independent and three more Republicans joined the caucus last week, as The Hill reported.

Read More Show Less
EPA scientists survey aquatic life in Newport, Oregon. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing to significantly limit the use of science in agency rulemaking around public health, the The New York Times reports.

Read More Show Less
A timelapse video shows synthetic material and baby fish collected from a plankton sample from a surface slick taken off Hawaii's coast. Honolulu Star-Advertiser / YouTube screenshot

A team of researchers led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration didn't intend to study plastic pollution when they towed a tiny mesh net through the waters off Hawaii's West Coast. Instead, they wanted to learn more about the habits of larval fish.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Two silver-backed chevrotain caught on camera trap. The species has only recently been rediscovered after being last seen in 1990. GWC / Mongabay

By Jeremy Hance

VIETNAM, July 2019 – I'm chasing a ghost, I think not for the first time, as night falls and I gather up my gear in a hotel in a village in southern Vietnam. I pack my camera, a bottle of water, and a poncho; outside the window I can see a light rain.

Read More Show Less
(L) Selma Three Stone Engagement Ring. (R) The Greener Diamond Farm Project. MiaDonna

By Bailey Hopp

If you had to choose a diamond for your engagement ring from below or above the ground, which would you pick … and why would you pick it? This is the main question consumers are facing when picking out their diamond engagement ring today. With a dramatic increase in demand for conflict-free lab-grown diamonds, the diamond industry is shifting right before our eyes.

Read More Show Less
Flooding in New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina on Sept. 11, 2005. NOAA Photo Library / Lieut. Commander Mark Moran

The most destructive hurricanes are three times more frequent than they were a century ago, new research has found, and this can be "unequivocally" linked to the climate crisis.

Read More Show Less