There is a pattern that is encapsulating almost all of the major countries in the world; that they are looking to withdraw from dirty sources of energy, especially coal which is the dirtiest among all. So when China on the back of its solar success came along with its $62 billion worth investment for the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), almost every sentient Pakistani was excited about the potential prospects this partnership would bring for the clean energy infrastructure in Pakistan. However it turned out to be a farce since CPEC’s $34 billion worth so called ‘clean’ energy portfolio was badly polluted by the inclusion of at least nine coal-fired power plants.
In reply to attacks by the environmentalists, it is often quoted by the Chinese and Pakistani officials that the power plants like the ones installed in Sahiwal and Port Qasim are using the latest supercritical and Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology, which will minimize the carbon emissions threat. There is no doubt that the supercritical steam cycle will increase the efficiency of the whole plant which will result in lower coal consumption per hour, but we need to realize that even then, carbon is being pumped into the air and that too at a high monetary cost.
As for the Carbon Capture technology making rounds in the retorts coming from the officials, its feasibility for large scale fossil fuel plants is unproven and untested. Even United States’ flagship ‘clean’ coal power plant, Mississippi’s Kemper County Energy Facility, switched to natural gas in 2017 after it turned out to be too costly. Around 18 months back, Global Warming Policy Foundation published an analysis which suggested that CCS will always fail to be economically viable in the face of declining clean energy prices.
There is no doubt that the supercritical steam cycle will increase the efficiency of the whole plant which will result in lower coal consumption per hour, but we need to realize that even then, carbon is being pumped into the air and that too at a high monetary cost.
Under the CPEC’s ‘Early Harvest’ energy projects, Pakistan faced a similar problem with the two-year old coal fired power plant in Sahiwal which was in danger of running into the wall last year. Such was the case because the cost of electricity per MW turned out to be much higher than anticipated, which resulted in non-payment of dues to the management of the power plant.
But, instead of learning from their mistakes, CPEC’s concerned parties are still going at full throttle to complete these energy projects. With Engro-Thar Power plant and Thar Coal Block I already under construction, not a lot can really be done to rectify them but fortunately all is not lost here because there are number of power plants like the ones in Rahim Yar Khan, Hub, Muzaffargarh and Gwadar, which are still going through pre-production studies, and therefore can be revisited and rectified. Just think about the virgin beaches of Gwadar being absolutely massacred by the waste of a coal-fired power plant; it is not just a dagger to the environment, but to the heart as well.
When we talk about these coal fired power plants, the debate usually revolves only around carbon emissions and its contribution to environmental catastrophes, but there is more to coal-fired power plants than meets the eye. Malik Amin Aslam, former State Minister for Environment, explained that the most crucial element of these power plants is that coal is being imported from Indonesia, and when it reaches Gwadar or Karachi, it is transported to different power plants like the one in Sahiwal via trains with open bogeys. Amin called these trains ‘cancer trains’ as they are disastrous for human health.
When we talk about these coal fired power plants, the debate usually revolves only around carbon emissions and its contribution to environmental catastrophes, but there is more to coal-fired power plants than meets the eye.
On top of that, experts claim that these power plants will further stress the already scarce water resources of Pakistan as they are extremely water intensive, and in water scant places like Thar and Gwadar, such power plants are recipes for disaster. A report released by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) on the power sector of Pakistan remarked that ash handling and disposal problems associated with these coal power plants will further exacerbate environmental issue
There is no denying the fact, that even after the installation of Sahiwal and Port Qasim Power plants, Pakistan still carries an energy deficit of around 4000 MW, and therefore needs these power plants desperately. No one can argue that even after being ranked 135th in the list of global emitter of carbon per capita, Pakistan is among the top ten countries prone to climate change disasters, which is extremely unfair.
But we have to keep in mind that if these projects are implemented, our emissions will increase by 3.9% annually and in the coming years will reach close to emissions per capita of the Western countries. In the process, our moral leverage against the West will be gone. The concepts like ecological debt will become irrelevant. Moreover, this will spread the message that we are simply not ready to play our part in redeeming our Earth and environment, which will isolate us from rest of the countries who are withdrawing themselves from dirty energy. Morally, it is pretty simple. When someone throws garbage in your neighborhood, you must not respond by throwing some more, in fact, you must take care of it for the sake of your dignity and your neighborhood.
Mir Ahmad Shah, executive secretary of the Pakistan Renewable and Alternative Energy Association, remarked that, ‘We really fail to fathom the government’s inclination toward environmentally damaging coal power plants while the country can generate millions of megawatts of solar, wind and hydroelectricity.’
Although with the new government on the federal throne now, one has expected better at least in terms of environmental policies since it has shown commitment to environmental issues at the provincial level. But other than the much touted billion tree tsunami, the current government has not done much at the policy level. It is unfortunate to see that the aficionados of incumbent government have changed their narrative and are now backing these carbon spewing power plants which they previously condemned while those from the previous government criticize these power plants which were conceived and hatched under their tutelage.
But other than the much touted billion tree tsunami, the current government has not done much at the policy level.
Between this political point scoring and war of words, our environment is getting a beating so comprehensive that a time will come when Pakistan will rank among the top five most climate change prone countries in the world. However, it might be too soon to castigate the current government since they have not even completed one-fifth of their expected tenure and have proved their commitment to environmental issues in their previous stint at the provincial level. Therefore, hope remains that saner heads will prevail and green policies will be implemented at the federal level, because one cannot possibly make a ‘New’ Pakistan with dirty energy. Can one?
Atif Ilyas is an Engineering and Development Studies graduate. He frequently writes for various media outlets.