Environmental Science and Pollution Research

, Volume 22, Issue 7, pp 5325–5339 | Cite as

Methane and CO2 emissions from China’s hydroelectric reservoirs: a new quantitative synthesis

  • Siyue Li
  • Quanfa Zhang
  • Richard T. Bush
  • Leigh A. Sullivan
Research Article


Controversy surrounds the green credentials of hydroelectricity because of the potentially large emission of greenhouse gases (GHG) from associated reservoirs. However, limited and patchy data particularly for China is constraining the current global assessment of GHG releases from hydroelectric reservoirs. This study provides the first evaluation of the CO2 and CH4 emissions from China’s hydroelectric reservoirs by considering the reservoir water surface and drawdown areas, and downstream sources (including spillways and turbines, as well as river downstream). The total emission of 29.6 Tg CO2/year and 0.47 Tg CH4/year from hydroelectric reservoirs in China, expressed as CO2 equivalents (eq), corresponds to 45.6 Tg CO2eq/year, which is 2-fold higher than the current GHG emission (ca. 23 Tg CO2eq/year) from global temperate hydropower reservoirs. China’s average emission of 70 g CO2eq/kWh from hydropower amounts to 7 % of the emissions from coal-fired plant alternatives. China’s hydroelectric reservoirs thus currently mitigate GHG emission when compared to the main alternative source of electricity with potentially far great reductions in GHG emissions and benefits possible through relatively minor changes to reservoir management and design. On average, the sum of drawdown and downstream emission including river reaches below dams and turbines, which is overlooked by most studies, represents the equivalent of 42 % of the CO2 and 92 % of CH4 that emit from hydroelectric reservoirs in China. Main drivers on GHG emission rates are summarized and highlight that water depth and stratification control CH4 flux, and CO2 flux shows significant negative relationships with pH, DO, and Chl-a. Based on our finding, a substantial revision of the global carbon emissions from hydroelectric reservoirs is warranted.


Hydropower reservoirs Greenhouse gas (GHG) CO2 emission Methane emission Green energy Carbon budget 



The research is funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (No. 31100347 and No. 31130010), Youth Innovation Promotion Association, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, China, and postdoctoral scholarship in Southern Cross GeoScience, Southern Cross University, Australia.

Supplementary material

11356_2015_4083_MOESM1_ESM.doc (427 kb)
ESM 1 (DOC 427 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Siyue Li
    • 1
    • 2
  • Quanfa Zhang
    • 2
  • Richard T. Bush
    • 1
  • Leigh A. Sullivan
    • 1
  1. 1.Southern Cross GeoScienceSouthern Cross UniversityLismoreAustralia
  2. 2.Key Laboratory of Aquatic Botany and Watershed Ecology, Wuhan Botanical GardenThe Chinese Academy of SciencesWuhanChina

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