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A catastrophe in the making

ADB’s report on Pakistan power sector and coal power plants is a clarion call to straighten up the path or be prepared for irreversible impacts of climate change

A catastrophe in the making
Dependence on fossil fuels will add to environmental degradation in Pakistan.

The recently conducted independent evaluation by Asian Development Bank (ADB) titled Sector Assistance Program Evaluation (SAPE) (URL: https://www.adb.org/sites/default/files/evaluation-document/397216/files/eap-pak-spe-energy.pdf) for the Pakistan power sector has revealed that through the multi-billion dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, approximately 10 Giga Watt (GW) of generation capacity will be commissioned before 2019.The report warns that the power sector’s energy mix has been affected by diminishing natural gas reserves and sluggish hydropower development, resulting into increased reliance on fossil fuel power generation and coupled with high technical losses, which will exacerbate climate change in Pakistan. Also, the fossil fuel generation will increase Greenhouse Gases (GHGs) that will worsen climate in Pakistan.

The Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) (URL: http://www4.unfccc.int/ndcregistry/PublishedDocuments/Pakistan%20First/Pak-INDC.pdf) that Pakistan had submitted to the United National Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as part of its commitment to Paris Climate Agreement also portrays a grim picture that the country’s emissions will increase up to fourfold by 2030. Pakistan’s NDC further highlights that the country needs US $ 40 billion in order to reduce 20 per cent of its carbon emissions by 2030 and US $ 7-14 billion annually if it is to adapt to climate change.

Experts fear the dependence on fossil fuels will add to climate change and environmental degradation in Pakistan and also compromise its national commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement.

Similarly, the Climate Public Expenditure and Institutional Review (CPEIR) by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Pakistan has revealed that in order to mitigate climate change, investments worth US $ 8 billion are needed annually for 15 per cent reduction in GHGs and up to US $ 17 billion for 40 per cent reduction in emissions. The UN’s study further reveals that the average costs for annual adaptation to climate change ranges from US $ 6 billion to US $ 14 billion up to 2050.

Pakistan needs to access climate finance from international financial institutions such as Green Climate Fund (GCF), Global Environment Facility (GEF), World Bank (WB) and others in order to mainstream the much needed finance for adaptation and mitigation of climate change, as the country is again ranked in the list of countries most vulnerable to climate change. According to Germanwatch, Pakistan is ranked number seven in the list of top 10 countries most vulnerable to climate change in the 20-year average.

The ADB report gives the breakdown of power generation sector of Pakistan revealing that out of 112 Tera Watt hours (TWh) of utility electrical generation in 2016, 32 per cent relied on imported furnace and diesel oil, 31 per cent from natural gas, 30 per cent from hydro, 3.8 per cent from nuclear and 1.4 per cent from renewables. The energy mix is expected to change, as new coal-fired power plants will be operational soon. A worrying figure from the report is that more than 60 per cent of electricity comes from fossil fuels. Inefficiencies of the energy sector also affect the environment and contribute to climate change through increase in GHGs.

Experts fear the dependence on fossil fuels will add to climate change and environmental degradation in Pakistan and also compromise its national commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement.

Dr Tariq Banuri, Professor at The University of Utah and Executive Director of Global Change Impact Studies Centre (GCISC) of the Ministry of Climate Change, stressed to adhere to the core principles while taking decisions on energy. “When the decision about coal plants was taken, the perception was that coal is the cheapest available fuel. This may no longer be true. For example, the Sahiwal coal-fired power project has an agreed tariff of 8.3601 US cents/kWh.”

Banuri said, “Last week, I was at the World Sustainable Development Forum (WSDF) in Mexico, where the Mexican Energy Minister announced that they have received bids of US 2 cents/kWh for solar power plants, which is less than one-fourth of the coal-based plants. In other words, the cost argument has shifted decisively towards renewable energy. It is not clear why Pakistan should pay 8.36 cents for electricity from a dirty source instead of 2 cents from a clean source?”.

When asked how the modern world has increasingly shifted towards a “triple bottom line approach”, where economic efficiency is weighed against social and environmental externalities, Banuri said, “Coal has very high environmental costs, both in terms of smog and air pollution, and climatic impacts. Smog has become a major threat in Pakistan, affecting peoples’ health adversely, and also paralysing the transport infrastructure during winter. Citizens are raising their voice about the impacts of smog and it is only a matter of time before they connect the dots and begin targeting the causes of smog, including the newly-established coal power plants.”

Dr. Tariq Banuri further said, “There are increasing developments taking place internationally to put a price on carbon and impose penalties on activities that aggravate the problem and increase carbon emissions. The construction of coal-fired power plants are no exception to this and if fossil fuels are discouraged (globally) to that extent, any investment in dirty energy will become “stranded assets”, and won’t be able to recover their costs. There is a dire need to re-examine the case of coal in the light of accumulating evidence. The government on the other hand has made a good decision by converting some power plants running on coal or furnace oil to LNG, which is far less polluting as a fuel, and can serve a reference for further action.”

Dr. Qamar-Uz-Zaman Chaudhry, who is the lead author of the National Climate Change Policy (NCCP) 2012 of Pakistan and the former DG of Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD), called for putting in place ‘climate-resilient’ infrastructure in order to minimise the climatic impacts. According to him, “We don’t say not to go for fossil fuels but assess that how we can minimise the impacts aggravated by climate change. Of course when infrastructure will be developed, emissions will rise and we need to see how to minimise the impacts and seek maximum economic benefits. CPEC is a lifeline and we need to see the various angles associated with it.”

If energy reliance on coal power plants is necessary, then super critical technology should be used so that emissions are minimal, added Dr. Qamar. He further said, “Efforts should be made to explore other technologies as well, which are less harmful for environment. The prime minister plans to convert coal and oil-fired power plants to Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG).”

Whereas, Dr. Adil Najam, Dean Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University, categorically said, “Coal, in general, is going to always be an environmental liability. That is obvious, and not really the key point to make. To me, the most important point is that coal no longer makes economic sense. And it will make less and less economic sense in future. Making such an investment is a bad idea for our future children, not only because we will be leaving them an untenable environmental legacy with coal, but because we will also leave them with a horrendous economic burden.”

Dr. Najam, who has also been an author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s report, further added, “We should also make it very clear, in our understanding as well as in our narrative, that there really is no such thing as ‘clean coal’. At best that is an aspiration, at worst it’s an oxymoron. Yes, there are relatively less and more dirty variants of producing power from coal, but, no, there are no clean versions.”

The climate science has already informed that how coal can cook the climate and make it difficult to limit the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as committed by more than 190 countries under the Paris Climate Agreement. The report by ADB is a clarion call to straighten up the path or be prepared for irreversible impacts of climate change. Let’s not forget that 2017 was the second-hottest year in recorded human history, without an El Niño event. Unless and until Pakistan slashes its emissions and promotes renewable energy, the consequences for this nation will be disastrous. 

Syed Muhammad Abubakar

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The writer is a Chevening Scholar pursuing MA International Journalism at Cardiff University, UK. He is the recipient of 2019 Environmental Journalist award and 2015 Young Environmental Journalist award by Singapore Environment Council (SEC). He tweets @SyedMAbubakar and can be reached at [email protected]

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