The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog

Cooperation rather than Competition (I): Renewable Energy for Whom?

As one of the world’s leading emerging economies, China’s insatiable demand for energy resources, as a result of its exponential economic growth rates is likely to increase over the coming decades. This has led to concerns of sustainability, namely the increasing scarcity of traditional energy resources and carbon emissions that exacerbate climate change.  China has nevertheless taken various steps to address these issues in its national development plans. Its proposed 12th Five year Plan demonstrates concrete steps for moving towards a low-carbon economy and also strategies to diversify its energy mix.

Clearly, energy needs for China’s economic development would require exploring all available resources within China’s territories. Interestingly enough, several regions which are crucial for China’s energy policies have also been theatres for social tension. In terms of renewable energy sources, China has initiated solar energy projects in Tibet, as the region is the richest resource for solar energy in China and is second to the Sahara Desert in terms of longest sunshine time in the world. Locations suitable for wind energy – aside from the Eastern Coast – include China’s Xinjiang province in the Northwest and northern territories bordering Mongolia.

In light of these geo-political concerns, China needs to ensure that its energy exploration and management policies are carefully implemented and do not adversely affect the needs of local communities in these regions. This is crucial for two reasons. Firstly, economic development is not simply a matter of achieving overall national growth, but more importantly, raising the standards of economic livelihoods and household incomes of the poor and increasingly marginalised communities as a result of industrialisation. Such inequalities exist between and within provinces in China. This was apparent in Xinjiang where despite the Western Development plan that boosted Xinjiang’s growth to the point that it was comparable to that of Eastern provinces, communities in southern Xinjiang (95% of non-Han origin) have a capita income half that of Xinjiang as a whole.

This relates to the second reason, where meeting these basic needs are important in preventing social tensions (and even conflict), which have occurred in the past as a result of the central government’s economic development policies that have widened inequalities – particularly for the largely rural/agrarian-based communities in Xinjiang and Tibet.

Like other shared natural resources, energy resources must be utilised as a tool for cooperation rather than conflict and competition. Ensuring communities’ access to energy sources is a crucial factor in this equation, as it would generate productivity via a bottom-up approach. Provincial and municipal governments in China would therefore play a significant role in catering to the specific development needs of the various provinces and their respective localities. Some improvements have so far been made such as the solar energy projects in Tibet that have been used for development needs of rural communities, and Xinjiang’s 20 billion yuan investment in wind energy technology. While this is a good start, such efforts must be further refined overtime and given greater support for the sustainable and affordable provision of renewable sources of energy to communities.






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