Pakistan is one of the most polluted countries in the world. According to global monitoring reports as of November 2021, two major cities — Lahore and Peshawar — have been declared among the 10 most polluted cities. Another seven cities of Pakistan are also listed, from time to time, among the 25 most polluted cities, globally classified as “hazardous” or “very unhealthy”. These are Karachi, Faisalabad, Bahawalpur, Sahiwal, Rawalpindi, Muridke, and Islamabad, in the same order, which are not meeting the air quality standards of World Health Organization (WHO). In fact, the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) 2020 ranks Pakistan 142 among 180 countries in terms of human health from environmental damage and air quality.
Air pollution has massive impact on human health, and thus it is one of the leading causes of premature deaths---some ten million persons die every year around the world. In Pakistan, there are at least 135,000 deaths annually, mostly of children, attributed to air pollution that is getting worse year after year. Burning of fuels and vehicular emissions are primarily responsible for poor air quality, global warming, and other severe environmental impacts. Globally, 25 percent of annual emissions come from coal-fired power plants. Coal-based power generation contributes to significant health impacts linked with their particulate emissions. Air pollution from coal-fired power plants is linked with asthma, cancer, heart and lung diseases, and neurological problems.
Total annual coal consumption in the country has alarmingly increased from 10.2 million tonnes in 2014 to over 30 million tonnes at present. Currently, coal-based power plants of cumulative installed capacity of 4,620MW are generating electricity, which accounts for 13 percent of total power capacity available in the National Transmission & Despatch Company (NTDC) system as in May 2021. These are Hubco Coal Power, Sahiwal Coal Power, and Port Qasim Coal Power---all of 1,320MW each installed capacity and based on imported coal. Engro Thar Coal Power & Mine (660MW) plant is using indigenous Thar coal. All these thermal power plants have been developed under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) programme. These power plants alone consume about 29 million tonnes of coal annually.
While the country faces serious environmental challenges, the previous governments had embarked upon an ambitious plan to meet future electricity needs through coal-based power generation, which has added to environmental degradation. Also, the development of indigenous coal resources for power generation has been undertaken in a big way. Mining, handling, storage and burning of coal in large quantities will result in huge emissions of air pollutants. Several coal-fired power plants, of cumulative capacity of over 3,930MW, are in advanced stage of construction, scheduled to achieve commercial operations this year or during 2023-24. The coal-based power plants will thus have share of cumulative 8,550MW to total power generation installed capacity by 2024. This will amount to 16 percent share of coal-based power generation in the overall energy mix by then, according to the Indicative Generation Capacity Expansion Plan (IGCEP) 2021-2030.
These projects are Lucky Electric Coal Power Co (660MW), Thar Coal Block-1 Power Generation (1,320MW), Thar Energy Limited (330MW), ThalNova Coal Power (330MW), and Siddiqsons Energy (330MW), all based on indigenous Thar coal. Lucky Electric has already been commissioned last month using imported coal until completion of third phase of mining within Thar Block-2 that has been approved recently. The Lucky power plant requires 3.8 million tonnes of coal every year. Coal consumption for power generation at Thar Coal Block-1 will be 8 million tonnes annually, whereas Thar Energy, ThalNova and Siddiqsons will each need over 2 million tonnes of coal annually. On the other hand, power plants to use imported coal are Jamshoro Coal Power (660-MW), the first unit of total 1,200MW project financed by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), and CIHC Pak Power, Gwadar (300MW). In addition, 1,320MW Oracle Coalfields based on Thar coal is a candidate project under the ICGEP portfolio. Plans are also underway to convert existing thermal power plants running on furnace oil and RLNG (regasified liquefied natural gas) to coal. In addition, several small coal-based power plants of the cement industry, industrial estates and other organisations are in operation. Coal consumption will thus increase exponentially in coming years worsening the environments if not addressed timely and effectively.
The total incremental concentration of conventional and hazardous pollutants of the planned power stations will be a major source of carbon dioxide emission and effluents, and affect air quality and water resources, with an adverse impact on human and marine life, and wildlife. Coal-based power plants also emit significant amount of mercury of which considerable part deposits into land ecosystems in the region. Seemingly, a few of these projects have even been launched without conducting environmental impact assessment, a pre-requisite under the law. Some emissions can be significantly reduced with the adoption of mitigation measures, like carbon capture and storage, and the application of advanced coal combustion technology. Employing state-of-the-art, highly efficient and low-carbon advanced technology, developed, and deployed in the western countries and Japan, is highly critical for Pakistan. China has also established a few power plants domestically that are based on the western ultra-supercritical coal technology.
Coal, though a reliable source of energy and world’s largest single source of electricity, is considered a heavily polluting fossil fuel. Several coal-using countries have already pledged to phase-out coal use in power generation in the wake of global warming and climate change issues. Pakistan has also committed not to develop any more coal-based power plants as reflected in the Energy Policy in vogue (IGCEP). In this context it is good news for the environmentalists that the Asian Development Bank (ADB) has recently agreed to purchase coal-powered energy projects in Pakistan and in return to provide clean energy projects under its Energy Transition Mechanism to help protect the natural environment by accelerating the decommissioning of coal facilities. Also, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has launched a 4-year Power Sector Improvement Project to increase share of green energy in overall energy mix in Pakistan.
The writer is former chairman of the State Engineering Corporation