Pakistan should stop funding Fossil Fuel Projects

(Khan Urwah, Tokyo)

Pakistan has the world’s seventh largest reserves of lignite, yet less than 0.1pc of its energy is generated from coal. Since the World Bank and other multilateral financial institutions have turned their back on coal, China has become Pakistan’s partner of choice for investment, construction and operation of these new coal-fired power plants.

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a bilateral deal between the two countries under which the Chinese government and banks will financially support Chinese companies to build USD 45.6 billion worth of energy and infrastructure projects in Pakistan over the next six years. The power plants will initially run on imported coal and will later transition to locally mined coal.

From a climate perspective, Pakistan’s coal revival presents a grim picture. In 2010, one of the deadliest floods in Pakistan’s history inundated over a fifth of the country, killing two thousand people and displacing several million from their homes. In the subsequent years, heavy monsoon rains once again battered several Pakistani villages and towns. The intensifying monsoon-induced floods appear to be part of an emerging pattern of extreme and erratic precipitation in South Asia, which climate scientists are attributing to climate change.

Last June, a lethal heat wave claimed over a thousand lives in the city of Karachi. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has predicted that heat waves will become more frequent and more intense in parts of South Asia as a result of the changing climate. Despite the fact that Pakistan has experienced the negative impacts of climate change in the recent past, a lack of awareness among citizens, misguided energy and environmental policy and a desperate need for energy make it likely that the coal projects will proceed as planned. Moreover, in a country where almost half the population teeters on the brink of the poverty line, environmental concerns are placed rather low on the priority list.

A multi-dimensional approach is required to tackle Pakistan’s energy crisis while being mindful of the disastrous impacts of fossil-fuel related greenhouse gas emissions. Short-term measures could include upgrading aging power stations to become more energy-efficient, minimizing transmission and distribution losses through smart metering and improved system monitoring, as well as introducing demand management initiatives such as peak pricing to curtail peak demand.

In the long-term, Pakistan should aim to transition away from imported fossil fuels and focus on developing indigenous resources to meet its growing energy needs. Historically, large hydro projects have spawned civil society opposition and politicians are therefore leery of developing the country’s vast hydropower resources. But hydropower could provide the long-term solution to meet Pakistan’s energy needs sustainably.

Pakistan has an estimated 50,000MW of hydropower potential of which only 6,600MW has been tapped so far. Hydropower potential could be harnessed to provide base-load power and be supplemented with technologies such as wind and solar to cater to peak demand. Nepal, for example, has a number of small run-of-the-river hydro projects which power communities without placing undue stress on downstream ecosystems.

The off-grid population could also benefit from the opportunity to ‘leapfrog’ directly to renewables via distributed generation without having to wait for central grid extension.

Small-scale systems using localized fuel sources such as biomass and animal waste could be used to generate power. Solar cell technology could also be used to power micro grids in off-grid communities. Not only would this be cheaper than extending the centralized grid to remote locations but transmission and distribution losses resulting from transporting power over long distances would also be reduced.

Pakistan has already experienced the mobile revolution and facilities like mobile money transfers and phone banking are used by a significant portion of the population. These existing facilities could be extended to pay for distributed energy services across the country. To stimulate private sector investment, the government should provide financial incentives and streamline the approval process to expedite project implementation.

The cost of renewable energy is declining worldwide and Pakistan must use this opportunity to develop its vast indigenous renewable energy resource base to power a green economy.

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