Debunking the myth of clean coal
Recently, Seoul hosted the two-day National Adaptation Plan (NAP) Expo Asia 2017 at the Marriott Hotel, organised by the Least Developed Countries Expert Group (LEG) under the UNFCC. Delegations from 20 countries, including one from Bangladesh comprising both government and non-government officials, attended the expo to share their experiences of formulating and implementing National Adaptation Plans (NAPs). As a pioneer in formulating NAP, Bangladesh had plenty to share with other climate vulnerable countries.
Dr Atiq Rahman, executive director at the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies, made an excellent presentation highlighting the climate risks facing Bangladesh and the innovative adaptive solutions that are coming out from community groups in collaboration with other stakeholders. His speech was both well-received and inspirational in that he showcased the resilience of the grassroots of Bangladesh in the face of all odds.
Any discussion on climate vulnerabilities and adaptation in Bangladesh automatically warrants a debate on the coal-centric energy development path our government has chosen. As expected, the issue came up following Dr Rahman's presentation, and he did well to articulate the tension between providing electricity to off-the-grid population and climate mitigation efforts. I completely agree with his argument that Bangladesh should not be burdened with the responsibility to mitigate GHG emissions at the cost of denying economically backward classes the fruits of "development."
However, the coal question is often misunderstood. The debate over the excessive reliance on coal-based thermal power generation has very little to do with our negligible role in the exponential accumulation of atmospheric GHGs. Just to give you some context, in 2013, coal's share in power generation was about three percent. The 2016 Power Sector Master Plan proposes to raise it to 50 percent, totalling about 20,000 megawatts by 2030.
I recently interviewed several key figures associated with the anti-Rampal movement. What I understood from those conversations was that the anti-Rampal protest is not really about global GHG emissions. Instead, the focus is primarily on the issue of local environmental vulnerability. The moral question that dogs these protesters is: what kind of a future are we imagining for our future generations in Bangladesh? Will they be able to breathe freely and dream of weaving a future unencumbered by the senseless choices made by their overzealous forefathers? Are we pushing them to a dystopian future for the momentary benefit of our own?
The official narrative tries to frame the coal question as a binary choice between coal and energy poverty leading to widespread economic underdevelopment. This is a highly fallacious argument. Saying "no" to coal in no way precludes us from extending electricity coverage to off-the-grid areas. Electricity can be generated from a variety of sources and that too in an environment-friendly manner. We are supposed to believe that the supposedly low cost of generating coal power makes it the only viable option, although prima facie evidence suggests otherwise: domestic electricity tariff is skyrocketing as we embrace more coal and fossil fuel.
The Institute for Energy Economic and Financial Analysis emphatically notes, "coal-fired electricity is no longer the economy-builder its proponents say it is... Today governments and private interests worldwide concede – even emphasise – the economic and environmental destruction of coal." The 2017 Bloomberg New Energy Finance Report declares in no uncertain terms that renewable energy will "push coal and natural gas plants out of business by 2040" worldwide.
Indeed, renewable energy prices are plummeting across the globe contrary to our government's claim. Recently, solar power became cheaper compared to coal-fired electricity in the Indian state of Rajasthan. The same trend is visible in the United States, China, and several other countries in Latin America and Europe. In fact, the US and China are engaged in a trade war over the plummeting prices of photovoltaic panels.
The secret to keeping coal power "cheap" is the direct and indirect subsidies such projects enjoy. The socio-ecological costs are often excluded when calculating the price of coal power. Ecological economics makes it amply clear that when the humongous costs of dealing with coal-related water contamination, waste cleanup, air pollution, health hazards, and biodiversity destruction are internalised, "cheap" coal does not remain so cheap. The taxpayers are then left to shoulder these essential but externalised costs to keep the projects floating.
During that discussion at the Expo, one of the government officials reiterated the official narrative that the proposed ultra-super-critical technologies to be used in Rampal will minimise ecological side-effects. I am sure his was an honest explanation. However, these assurances ring hollow. I am really befuddled as to why despite the availability of such miraculous technologies to wash coal clean, countries like China, India, England, and the Netherlands are shuttering coal-fired power plants.
In March this year, China shut down the last coal-fired power plant in Beijing to tackle air pollution. Perhaps, we can export the clean coal technology and know-how to China! Clean coal is really an oxymoron; it is a multi-billion-dollar marketing scam launched by the US coal industry to mislead the public.
It is hypocritical of China and India to shut down coal power plants in their backyards while encouraging us to tread that forsaken path. They are simply gift-wrapping their pollution problem and outsourcing it to us. If China with its tremendous financial and technological might cannot deal with coal-related air pollution in Beijing, there is no way we could solve this problem with our limited ability.
Coming back to adaptation, already our coastal region is grappling with the adverse effects of climate change. Increasing soil salinity, drinking water shortage, health problems, new vector-borne diseases, agricultural productivity decline, climate-induced migration are a fact. These coal-fired power plants will only aggravate the situation by contaminating the remaining drinking and irrigation water sources, jeopardising public health with higher incidence of cardiovascular and respiratory complications, and destroying livelihoods through unintended consequences. By building these coal-based power plants in the coastal areas, we are doubly punishing a group of people who are already struggling to adapt to the climate-induced disasters.
Dr Manoj Misra teaches sustainable development at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, Seoul, Republic of Korea.