Coal in the time of climate change
For centuries, coal as a cheap source of energy has been called ‘black gold’ for playing significant role in keeping the industrial wheel rolling and increasing economic growth across the globe. It is only in recent decades, however, that the sheen of ‘black gold’ has started to dim after increasing realisation about its contribution to environmental degradation and climate change.
Climate change as a phenomenon manifested in global warming, rising sea levels and frequent occurrences of extreme weather is attributed to human activities causing emission of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Use of coal and other fossil fuels is considered one of the major sources of emission of greenhouse gases.
Imperatives of catastrophic ecological consequences of climate change demanded the governments to sit together; contemplate on the earnestness of the issue; cooperate with each other and commit steps/actions to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases.
It led to the initiatives like establishment of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988, signing of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992, Kyoto Protocol 1997 and Paris Climate Summit 2015. These international forums and commitments underlined the need for tapping renewable sources of energy to limit the use of coal and other fossil fuels causing emission of greenhouse gases.
To discuss and analyse social and environmental problems of coal-fueled power generation plants in Pakistan and come up with viable solutions like renewable energies, a seminar titled ‘Imperatives of Climate Change: Coal, Communities and Renewable Energy in Pakistan’ was jointly organised by Nation Development Organization and Pakistan Coal Network on February 4, at National Press Club, Islamabad.
Speakers at the seminar, hailing from the government, academia, civil society and communities, demanded a clear shift in power generation policy from coal and other fossil fuels to alternative sources of renewable energy. While terming the coal-fueled power generation socially disruptive, economically expensive and environmentally disastrous, they said it was ironical that when the world was shifting away from coal, Pakistan was inclining towards the dirtiest source of energy.
Tehseen Fawad, Member Punjab Assembly, said notwithstanding its pressing needs of power production, Pakistan will have to opt for the sources of energy involving no disruptions in the lives and livelihoods of people, burden on national economy and degradation of environment. She said given its adverse impact on public health and environment, coal must be replaced with clean sources of energy like wind and solar.
Justice (retired) Ali Nawaz Chowhan of National Commission on Human Right said the crisis of climate change could not be seen in isolation from human rights. Instead the protection of human rights and healthy environment were mutually reinforcing, he said.
He said the countries around the world increased coal production and consumption for the sake of development. However, the development came at the expense of the human rights of the people most vulnerable to the impacts of coal.
While acknowledging the essentiality of environmental and climate approach, he underlined the significance of human rights approach to tackle the challenges posed by coal. He said using human rights approach tended to bring the important issue of accountability to the fore. This was important particularly for countries like Pakistan, where impunity for abuses persisted, he said.
Prof. Mushtaq Gaadi of Quaid-i-Azam University discussed the concept of circular debt, its origin and contributing factors in power sector. While referring to a report by a senate committee led by Syed Shibli Faraz, he said Pakistan’s total circular debt amounted to Rs1.557 trillion in the fiscal year ending in June 2018.
He said Pakistan’s circular debt in power sector originated in 1994 when the government made policy decision to generate power through fossil fuels that were meant to be imported. He identified exchange rate and fuel price adjustment as critical factors affecting the circular debt.
Following the nuclear test in 1998, he said, international economic embargoes were imposed on Pakistan, causing devaluation of rupee that enhanced country’s circular debt. He said since power sector is one of the major contributors of national circular debt, Pakistan will have to say good bye to fossil fuels, including coal, and encourage renewable sources of energy if the crisis of circular debt is to be resolved.
He said the federal minister for water and power Omar Ayub had recently stated that alternative energy sources will contribute 30 per cent to energy mix by 2025. Achieving that target was not possible since there was no policy institutional mechanism in place, he concluded.
While giving a presentation on gender implications of climate change, Dr. Imran S. Khalid of Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) said women were the worst sufferers of climate change due to their subordinated position in the society.
He said the policy processes involving nationally determined contributions (NDCs), which Pakistan committed under Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, were highly techno-centric, centralised and exclusionary. He asked the government to allow participatory spaces to people, particularly women, in revising its NDCs.
Muhammad Ali Shah of Pakistan Fisher-folk Forum said the Port Qasim and Hubco Coal Power Plants established in coastal areas of Sindh and Balochistan were badly affecting the marine life and livelihood of fisher-folk communities. He said mangrove forest served as the hatcheries of fish and a wall against sea intrusion but unfortunately a large area of mangrove forest was cleared in creating room for Port Qasim Coal Power Plant.
He said uncovered transportation of imported coal on trucks and railway carriages was a serious health hazard, causing respiratory diseases among the fishing communities living in the close vicinity of Port Qasim and Hubco Coal Power Plants.
Bheem Raj, a community representative from Tharparkar district, said due to coal mining for Thar Coal Power Plant the waste water was being dumped in Gurano. It was posing serious health hazards as well as causing displacement and livelihood disruption to the people of 12 villages in Gurano area of Tharparkar district. He demanded a comprehensive land and water policy to stop displacement and degradation of land and water resources in wake of coal mining in Thar.
Asim Nawaz of Nation Development Organization said the Sahiwal Coal Power Plant completed on emergency ground was posing serious threats to public health and environment in the area. He said it was the only coal-fueled power plant in the world that was established in a fertile and thickly populated area, which was 1,200 km away from coast. Coal was generally considered to be the cheap source of energy but given the transportation cost of the imported coal used in Sahiwal plat, it is the most expensive energy source, he concluded.
Since social and environmental costs are hard to be measured in monetary terms, they are seldom assessed in cost-benefit analyses. They are known as ‘externalities’ and generally realised much after the damages are done. Keeping the ‘externalities’ of coal in view, it is hard for any sensible person to consider coal a cheap source of energy.