By Dr Murad Ali
First of all, it must be made clear that any constructive, objective and evidence-based criticism on some aspects of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) should never be equated with the anti-CPEC, anti-development or anti-Pakistan debate. Rather, raising questions and offering critical perspectives need to be encouraged in order to come up with rigorous assessments. This will ensure that correct decisions with minimal adverse outcomes are made.
This piece endeavours to gauge the long-term ecological implications of the coal-based CPEC-related energy projects. Out of the total $46 billion investments under CPEC (now the aggregate amount has been raised due to inclusion of various other projects), about 74 percent or $34 billion have been allocated for the power sector. The projects in the energy sector comprise coal, hydro, wind and solar.
The power sector is not only a primary beneficiary in CPEC but it is also one of the foremost recipients of funds in the annual federal Public Sector Development Programme (PSDP). And why should it be any different? The country, after all, has been reeling from an acute energy shortage over the last few years. The situation has predominantly worsened since 2006: according to a government document, this is primarily on account of “inadequate capacity addition, limited exploration and ineffective exploitation of hydro, coal and renewable potential and inefficient use of energy resources”. Consequently, due to a supply-demand gap, the government remains with no alternative option but to impose load?shedding of electricity and gas in the country.
During times of acute need, particularly in the summer, the overall shortfall in energy reaches 7,000 MW. The deficit has a detrimental effect on the economy, causing an estimated 4-7 percent loss to the country’s GDP. The government, in its Vision 2025 policy document, stated that it aims to “eliminate the current electricity supply-demand gap by 2018 and cater to the growing future demand by adding 25,000 MW by 2025”. The same document states that early harvest projects in CPEC will add 10,400 MW of energy to the national grid by 2018. If this target is achieved, it would reduce loadshedding in the country significantly and would reduce the chronic energy shortfall.
A detailed list of all energy projects to be completed under CPEC reveals that there are a total of 24 projects with a potential of 17,045 MW of energy production. Like other components of CPEC projects, the government is very optimistic about ventures in the power sector and anticipates that CPEC “energy projects will serve as a backbone of the energy strategy to overcome power crisis in Pakistan”.
Another important feature of CPEC energy projects, as envisioned by the government, is “to improve the energy mix with a larger share of coal, hydel and renewable energy sources”. Although the list of projects shows that there is a mix of coal, hydel and wind, a majority of projects will make use of coal and that should be a matter of grave concern. Coal may be a feasible option for a short to medium-term planning, but due to the hazards it poses on the environment, it should not be a long-term viable energy strategy.
Government policy documents claim that the country has “an enormous amount of untapped coal reserves (around 186 billion tonnes)” and the government intends to increase domestic coal production from 4.5 to 60 million tonnes annually. Keeping in view the environmental concerns of carbon dioxide emissions associated with coal-based thermal power projects, the government is committed to adopting clean coal combustion technologies along with strong policies to make their use eco-friendly and to conform to international standards. This is easier said than done. Although a cheap source of energy production, coal has severe environmental implications.
In her book ‘The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future’, Elizabeth Economy has skilfully portrayed tha,t while China has made tremendous progress in terms of economic development over the last few decades, it has also caused great damage to the environment. This is due to unprecedented coal-based energy production. The author states that China is the world’s largest coal producer as it accounts for nearly half of global coal consumption and is the largest source of carbon emissions. Consequently, China has six of the ten most polluted cities in the world; five of its largest rivers are not suitable for human contact, the quality of air in many big cities fails to meet international health standards and about 300,000 people die annually prematurely as a result of air pollution. Critics also argue that annual losses incurred due to pollution are in the range of 5-10 percent of China’s GDP.
Moreover, key factors like lax environmental regulation and lack of comprehensive policies, have made China a favourite destination of pollution-intensive manufacturing. The outcome is the current ecological disaster.
While Pakistan aims to exponentially increase its coal consumption with Chinese assistance and technology, the irony is that China has set a target of reducing its annual coal capacity by 800 million tonnes. It also aims to “improve coal production safety and efficiency, as well as to reduce its negative impacts on the environment”. Perhaps it has learnt a lesson from its environmentally destructive development strategies.
Although coal-based power projects will reduce the supply-demand gap in the country, these would certainly have quite harmful effects on the environment in the long run. The government’s plan to accelerate domestic coal production from 4.5 to 60 million tonnes annually stands in stark contrast with global trends at a time when the world is turning to more and more renewable forms of energy.
According to the ‘Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2016’ report, in 2015, renewable energy set new records for investment. The report adds that investments reached nearly $286 billion and for the first time, more than half of all added power generation capacity came from renewable resources. Hence, following the latest global trends for environmentally safe and secure future, Pakistan must fully exploit the country’s potential in renewable energy resources. It must think of coal only as a short-term solution so that long-term consequences of environmental degradation can be avoided.
Pakistan’s vulnerability and exposure to climate change and environmental hazards are real. The country is already faced with numerous climate-related challenges as the melting of the Himalayan glaciers accelerates and global warming becomes more evident.