Criminal coal

November 14,2017

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The entire EU, including the UK, has contributed around nine percent to global carbon emissions while India alone is responsible for seven percent during previous years. Apart from water politics, Pakistan may also have to pay an environmental price for not having responsible neighbours.

The thick layer of smog that blankets Punjab’s skies these days is an example of this environmental cost. Although the smog in New Delhi is equally appalling and can be attributed to the coal consumption within and around the city, the coal-based industries and power plants across the border in Indian Punjab and Rajasthan are the key sources of the pollution that have triggered the smog in Pakistan. Pakistani planners are equally absurd in their approach to learning lessons and adopting strategies. A discourse about the importance of pollution prevention is often considered to be a foreign agenda.

Lahore has recently been ranked in the fourth position among the 10 worst cities for smog. Pakistan already ranks in the seventh position among the ten countries that are vulnerable to climate change. Besides other climate change vulnerabilities, air pollution has detrimental health effects on the country’s population. It is estimated that more people have died across the world due to air pollution in recent years than through AIDS, malaria, diabetes or tuberculosis.

Globally, at least 35 percent of the overall emissions come from the energy sector, particularly from the coal-fired power plants. Global coal consumption has been reduced by around two percent during the last year. China, which uses half of the coal consumed globally, has reduced its coal consumption by over one-and-a-half percent. In the UK, coal demands have fallen by 52.5 percent.

Unfortunately, Pakistan’s coal market is destined to increase manifold and mostly from the imported sources. The federal and provincial governments are aggressively working on new power projects. Over 19,000 megawatts will be added into the power grid by 2024 through private sector investments via PPIB. Of this, over 14,000 MW will be generated from majority-imported thermal resources, with over 9,000 MW from coal.

Only around 4,000 MW will be generated from the indigenous hydropower potential. Around 70 percent of Chinese investment through CPEC has been allocated to the energy sector. Of this, a majority of the investment has been in the coal market. Apart from the large economic burden on consumers, the environmental situation may worsen and become irreversible as a consequence.

Technological advancements have significantly improved the situation in the Western world by reducing emissions and the world is phasing-out old technologies. But there is an incremental cost for adopting such solutions for poor countries. Adopting these new technologies will make coal even more expensive and economically less viable. Coal-lobbying energy experts in Pakistan regularly refer to the consumption of coal worldwide to justify its relevance in influencing short-term solutions. However, they don’t mention the decreasing trends in consumptions and other implications.

The recent energy crisis, fuelled by the poor performances of governments for two decades and a deficient vision towards sustainability, has left us with no option but to opt for immediate short-term solutions. Research and planning in the country has become almost nonexistent on this matter. An optimal energy mix is also critical to the economic development of the country.

After the construction of the Tarbela and Mangla dams in the late 1960s, the thermal hydel (renewable) ratio was 73. Now, the case has been reversed and the ratio is now over 70 percent. Other renewable resources collectively amount to around 30 percent. Opting for short-term solutions also favours political parties who are in power. It presents the cosmetic progress within their five-year tenure so that the same can be used for the next elections.

The power tariff of coal currently stands at nine cents and uses relatively old technologies while indigenous hydropower costs about seven cents. Coal tariff is further subjected to global oil prices and the current tariff is in this honeymoon period due to global oil price recessions. It is expected to further increase as the global market recovers. The use of super-critical and other advanced technologies will further increase the cost. There has also been some progress on indigenous coal. But most of the plants that are under construction are based on imported coal.

Furthermore, the average life of a typical hydropower plant is 80 years. The current cost of hydropower is seven cents for 30 years of levelised tariff. However, the fundamental concept that our so-called energy experts hide from decision-makers and the public is that the real benefit of hydropower comes after 30 years when the tariff drastically reduces to nearly one cent for the next 50 years. Mangla and Tarbela are examples. There is no comparison of coal with any other technologies. The world is now shifting towards wind, solar and other renewable sources of energy. Wind and solar energy costs up to five cents but are neglected technologies in Pakistan for reasons unknown.

Pakistan is home to natural and clean renewable resources. Gilgit-Baltistan alone is home to clean energy and approximately more than 40,000 MW of hydel potential has already been identified by various studies. The major projects which have been identified show that the construction of just three run-of-the-river projects on River Indus can significantly address the power needs of Pakistan while improving the energy mix status of the country.

The environmental effects are beyond political boundaries. It takes a regional and global approach to prevent these repercussions.

The severity of energy demands that envisage quick fixes, such as opting for non-indigenous and non-renewable resources, have to be reduced substantially. But a similar situation can reemerge after a few years if the focus on the sector is withdrawn. No coal or ‘only indigenous coal’ policy needs to be adopted and promoted immediately if we are committed to ensuring affordable energy for poor consumers in the future.

Our neighbouring countries have an aggressive policy towards tapping the hydropower potential of our shared basins. Therefore, Pakistan also needs to match up to these policies with similar efficiency. Although hydropower development takes more time than other sources, it naturally matches the pace of the increasing energy demands in general. The groups and institutions working for poor consumers should play their role in raising awareness and building a national narrative that is based on sustainability.

The writer is a freelance contributor.



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