The question of how to achieve green development – to maintain economic growth without the trade-offs of ecological degradation or carbon emissions – has long perplexed theorists of development and environmental change. Yet most studies analyze green development as applied to industrialized economies or international aid projects; few examine how it is interpreted and implemented in the Global South, especially in resource-rich areas, even as many countries chart their own development path distinct from that of the Global North.
My research addresses this issue by examining the political economy and socio-environmental impacts of China’s renewable energy sector, focusing specifically on the resource frontiers where energy is produced. A key finding and contribution of my work, is that low-carbon transition in one location or scale entails a process of low-carbon extraction elsewhere, which can subject resource frontiers to land and water enclosures and economic volatility associated with traditional extractive industries. This finding is significant because it situates green and low-carbon technologies and policies within broader dynamics of uneven development and environmental justice, instead of seeing them as innately sustainable and equitable.
I am currently working on two projects: my dissertation research on China's small hydropower industry, and a new multi-year project on the construction of China's 'Green' Belt and Road through renewable energy investment in Southeast Asia.
Small Hydropower and Green Development in China
My dissertation, entitled Low-Carbon Frontier: Small Hydropower and Logics of Green Development in China, investigates the tremendous boom (and subsequent bust) of small hydropower (SHP), China’s first and most common renewable energy technology. At its core, this project seeks to explain a seeming paradox: that while the government promotes SHP abroad as a Chinese model of green development, it is actively restricting further SHP expansion at home. Using conceptual and methodological tools from economic geography, political ecology, and coupled natural-human systems, I ‘follow the technology’ from policy design in Beijing, to implementation in China’s southwest Yunnan province, to export abroad through international training workshops in Hangzhou. In doing so, I unearth the logics and politics that shape when, where, and how low-carbon policies and technologies are designed and used, and the economic and environmental consequences that they entail.
Based on fourteen months of fieldwork across six research sites, my findings reveal that the function of SHP has changed constantly in different times and places, from rural electrification and industrialization, to conservation and national carbon mitigation. I argue that these changes reflect shifting state logics of green development, which have evolved from a focus on rural poverty alleviation to national low-carbon growth. Through new policies and energy subsidies, the state has re-framed rural southwest China as a ‘low-carbon frontier’, generating rapid and uncoordinated growth in SHP construction since the early 2000s. Yet I also found local conflicts between electricity generation and other natural resource uses, such as irrigation, forest conservation, and water storage, which have negatively affected rural livelihoods and agricultural yields. Moreover, while SHP is promoted as a substitute for dirty fuels, I found that it propelled an increase in mineral extraction and deforestation for charcoal production. For these reasons, and because of overcapacity, the state no longer favors SHP as a source of low-carbon value, ceding its position to solar and wind. This has driven SHP firms to new markets abroad, buoyed by state officials eager to tout China as a ‘green’ aid and investment partner. These findings thus contrast with typical accounts of low-carbon transition to highlight the spatial and environmental inequalities that shape renewable energy expansion.
I am currently extending this dissertation research to explore the increasing interconnections between renewable energy and mineral extraction in western China. This pursuit emerged out of the finding, described in a co-authored article in Global Environmental Change, that many SHP plants in Yunnan generate power exclusively for mining silicon, a principal component of computer chips and wafers in solar photovoltaic (PV) cells. Working with partners at Yunnan University and Yunnan Normal University, I will conduct three weeks of fieldwork in Summer 2018 to investigate the political, economic, and environmental drivers of this renewable energy—extraction connection, and its local and regional impacts. This analysis will highlight how low-carbon activities on resource frontiers can intersect (and even complement) traditional carbon-intensive extraction.
Collaborators on this project include the Yunnan Normal University School of Energy and Environmental Science, the Tsinghua University Department of International Relations, the World Agroforestry Center Kunming, and the Yunnan Academy of Forestry. My sincere thanks also to the Hangzhou Regional Center for Small Hydropower and International Center for Small Hydropower for hosting my research.
China's 'Green' Belt and Road in Southeast Asia
Beginning Winter 2018, I will launch a new multi-year research project entitled A Green Belt and Road? Renewable Energy and Development Models on China’s Southwest Borderlands. Following U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, President Xi Jinping declared China’s intent to lead the world in domestic and international renewable energy construction. Many of these proposed projects will be facilitated through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an overarching strategy for promoting regional integration and infrastructure investment across Asia. Indeed, Chinese leaders are promoting the BRI as pathway for other countries to achieve green development through energy connectivity and low-carbon technologies. Yet this discourse of green development conflicts with China’s own domestic environmental problems, and Chinese companies continue to build ecologically destructive infrastructure projects in other countries, raising questions about the broader purpose and consequences of renewable energy investment through the BRI.
To address these questions, this project will analyze Chinese-funded solar PV and SHP facilities in the countries along China’s southwestern border, an area targeted for investment through the BRI. Building on my dissertation, I will examine how different actors – Chinese and host country officials, investors, plant managers, and local people – shape the implementation and operation of renewable energy systems to achieve their own priorities and visions for green development. In so doing, this project complicates recent narratives that China is ‘exporting’ a singular model of development, whether this model is viewed as ‘green’ or not. Instead, it seeks to understand how different ‘green’ and ‘development’ priorities are negotiated through renewable energy projects, and the consequences of these projects for livelihoods and economic trajectories in countries where China exercises influence. Such analysis is critical to understand how processes of low-carbon transition in China articulate with broader geopolitics and commercial interests, and their social and environmental impacts. The results of this research will thus 1) advance theoretical analysis of the geopolitics of green development and renewable energy, 2) enable an understanding of how development models are constructed in South-South contexts, and 3) highlight the benefits and consequences of renewable energy for communities and regions along the Belt and Road Initiative.