The environmental cost

In a bid to find cheaper sources of energy production, governments have often turned to coal and LNG. But this comes at a high environmental cost

The environmental cost


he energy shortfall has been a challenge for governments in Pakistan. Quite often high prices of fuel hinder generation of electricity. Therefore, governments look at cheaper sources of energy production like liquefied natural gas (LNG) and coal.

Both coal and LNG fall in the category of fossil fuels. These have adverse effects on environment. Azhar Lashari, a development sector expert on energy, says thermal power is produced by burning fossil fuels like coal, oil or gas and fossil fuel combustion causes emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases accounting for climate change. Besides, he says, the production processes in thermal power generation induce solid and liquid wastes. These pollutants are injurious for natural resources, biodiversity and ecology — causing air pollution, contamination of surface and groundwater resources, land degradation and harmful impacts on public health.

Despite these hazards, the share of coal powered electricity is increasing. According to the Indicative Generation Capacity Expansion Plan (IGCEP) 2021-30 prepared by the National Transmission and Dispatch Company (NTDC), the installed generation capacity of Pakistan reached 34,501 MW by the end of May 2021. Coal (both imported and indigenous) contributes 13 percent of the country’s total installed generation capacity.

Lashari says coal is notorious for being the dirtiest of fossil fuels. The coal reserves of Pakistan, predominantly found in Thar, are lignite. Lignite coal is economically less productive and environmentally more polluting. The increasing volume of extraction and combustion of Thar lignite reserves can potentially cause serious environmental disasters like acid rains and poisoning of the fragile desert hydrology.

The proponents of coal energy claim that certain technologies like ‘supercritical’ plants are environmentally safe. They also promise to ensure certain environmental safeguards against coal-induced emissions and pollutants. However, these technologies and safeguards have their limitations. Supercritical plants, for instance, can help reduce the level of some emissions and pollutants but they can’t fully eliminate them. As far as environmental safeguards are concerned, they happen to have substantial recurring costs. Also, coal-based businesses operating in countries having weak legal and policy frameworks and inefficient environmental governance institutions, tend to save costs involved in ensuring environmental safeguards against harmful impacts of coal mining and combustion.

Environmentalist Ahmed Rafay Alam adds that some coal fired power plants may say they “capture” their emissions. “Fine. Then what do they do with the carbon they collect? Where and how is it disposed of?

Extraction of coal comes with certain hazards. According to the report titled Air quality, health and toxics impacts of the proposed coal mining and power cluster in Thar, Pakistan, released by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), Pakistan is already suffering from air pollution levels that are among the highest in the world, reducing life expectancy in the country by more than 2.5 years and increasing Pakistanis’s vulnerability to Covid-19 pandemic.

It says that more than 95 percent of Pakistan’s installed coal-based electricity generation capacity (5,090 MW) was commissioned in the past 3 years. More than 6,000 MW is still in various stages of development. This, the report says, is happening at a time when coal-based power plants and plans are being scrapped across the globe due to high climate and air pollution impacts.

The report points out that a massive cluster of coal mines and power plants, with a total of 9 power plants and a total capacity of 3,700 megawatts is being proposed in the Thar region alone out of which 660 megawatts has already been commissioned at Thar Block II power station. The proposed plants will constitute one of the largest air pollutants, becoming mercury and CO2 emission hotspots in South Asia. Air pollutant emissions from plants and mines will expose an estimated 100,000 people to exceedances of the World Health Organisation (WHO) guideline for 24-hour average SO2 concentrations and 3,000 people to exceedances of the guidelines for 24-hour average PM2.5 concentrations, the report warns.

Other key findings of the report are: i) The power plants and mines will cause 29,000 air pollution-related deaths over an operating life of 30 years; ii) Other health impacts include 40,000 asthma emergency room visits, 19,900 new cases of asthma in children, 32,000 pre-term births, 20 million days of work absence (sick leave) and 57,000 years lived with disability related to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes and stroke; iii) The plants will emit an estimated 1,400 kg of mercury per year, of which one fifth will be deposited into land ecosystems in the region; and iv) Most of the deposition will take place on cropland, increasing the mercury concentrations in crops. The levels of mercury deposition are likely to be dangerous in an area with 100,000 inhabitants.

Environmentalist Ahmed Rafay Alam points out that combustion of coal causes air pollution and emission of sulphur dioxide (SO2) and other greenhouses gases. When SO2 meets moisture sulphuric acid is produced. Coal extraction and transport also cause problems.

Alam says that some coal fired power plants may say they “capture” their emissions. “Fine. Then what do they do with the carbon they collect? Where and how is it disposed of?”

He says if coal is not transported properly the route it covers may have an increased risk of exposure to coal dust. Think of the train miles coal has to travel from Karachi port to Sahiwal for the power plant there, he adds. “If even 1 percent is lost during transport, think of the impact on communities living by the railway lines.”

Haneea Isaad, financial analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), says underground water levels have gone down in Thar where water is drawn during the coal extraction process. Besides, she says, the waste water is disposed of in cavities from where it seeps into the ground and contaminates ground water.

Ali Touqeer, an independent climate change expert, says coal power plants were set up under the CPEC but they are not low-cost electricity producers because they are using imported coal. He says Pakistan must go for clean energy like solar if it wants to keep the electricity production process environment friendly.

The writer is a staff reporter. He can be reached at

The environmental cost