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Low-Carbon Frontier: Small Hydropower and Logics of Green Development in China


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; fewer 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. This dissertation addresses this issue by examining the political economy and socio-environmental impacts of small hydropower (SHP) in China, the country’s most widespread renewable energy technology. At its core, it 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 development studies, 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 green development 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, this dissertation finds 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 and green development.

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